Father, Fighter, Lover

So Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, who cares?

bob-dylanThe world has not rested since the 2016 Nobel Prize was awarded, not to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but to Bob Dylan, that legendary poet who also sings. There have been impassioned essays for and against the award to Dylan. It all makes for fascinating reading.  Take this piece from Rajeev Balasubramanyam, writing in the Washington Post (October 22, 2016) who makes an interesting case for why Ngugi should have won the prize:

Ngugi’s decision to move away from English was a brave one for a writer hailing from Africa, a continent frequently treated as irrelevant by the rest of the world. It could, in fact, have led to his disappearance from the global stage, but instead it solidified his reputation as a writer of supreme political commitment, though few of his contemporaries or juniors took up the call to write in their native languages. Ngugi’s attitude toward this, however, is markedly self-aware and flexible.

 We of the elder generation,” he told the New African three years ago, “are so bound up by our anti-colonial nationalism, which is important for us but the younger generation ― they are free. You find they don’t confine their characters necessarily to Africa. They are quite happy to bring in characters from other races, and so on … that’s good because they are growing up in a multicultural world.

Okay, let me share a few thoughts:

1. Ngugi richly deserves the Nobel, no ifs, no buts about it. This warrior deserved the Nobel in celebration of a prodigious life marked by industry, hard work, innovation, a profound love for the word and its application in civil rights activism.

2. Ngugi’ innovation, in my view, is not in experimenting with writing in a Kenyan language. I didn’t find that particularly innovative, many writers (not well known of course) have always written in indigenous African languages. It was quixotic in the sense that there was not a market for it, a bold experiment perhaps, but not innovative.

3. Literary innovation was in how in their early works, Ngugi and Chinua Achebe took the English language and appropriated it as if it was an African language. I will go so far as to say they made it an African language. Achebe, said it all, as if with a wink and a smirk: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” It is thanks to them and the young writers of the Internet and social media, and not to today’s contemporary African writer (of books), that words like “molue” and “egusi” are now words defined in English dictionaries (Yes, Google it!).

4. I would have danced myself crazy had Ngugi won. For many years, I agonized over Chinua Achebe not winning the Nobel Prize. I once said something about this in the once thriving literary list-serve krazitivity and I think it was the writer Obiwu, not sure anymore, who counseled me against looking outside for validation, Achebe was certainly not sitting around waiting for the Nobel to honor him. That spoke to me and in a sense has inspired me also to urge us to look inwards.ngugi

5. These are exciting times to be a reader if you love African literature. I have said this ad nauseam, advances in technology, especially the advent of the Internet and social media have exposed the world to the universe of the narratives of Africa. Our books are still incredibly important but you have to read the young men and women who are doing some pretty amazing and innovative work on the Internet and on social media to get a sense of the sum of our stories. They have pushed the frontiers of the work started by pioneers like Ngugi and Achebe. In their stories, we think, laugh, make love and cry like the human beings we are. Africans are not the pathetic disease-ridden stick figures we read of in African books of fiction. Like their Western counterparts they have learned to be “provincial” as the writer Chigozie Obioma wrongly (in my view) puts it in his recent piece in the Guardian, or in my words, insular. I applaud the new African writers of the Internet and social media. They don’t explain themselves, they just write. If you are curious enough, google “egusi” or “molue.”

6. These are exciting times to be a reader if you love African literature. Advances in technology, especially the advent of the Internet and social media have exposed the world to the universe of the narratives of Africa. Our books are still incredibly important but you have to read the young men and women who are doing some pretty amazing and innovative work on the Internet and on social media to get a sense of the sum of our stories. They have pushed the frontiers of the work started by gusi” just as you would “crumpets.” If you care enough about my world, you would be curious about my words. These young men and women do not write for the West, they just write. And guess what, the world is getting it. I say to young writers, keep doing more of what you are doing, may you profit from your demons.achebe

7. And profit they should. Young African writers need a lot of support and affirmation. They are doing good work and they need all the help that they can get. I have serious issues with Nigeria’s NLNG $100,000 prize, I have been loud in decrying is as an embarrassment. It is a crying shame that the NLNG Prize committee spends the equivalent of the Nobel Prize (about $1 million) yearly to award a $100,000 lottery to one writer. I am happy for Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, he and Elnathan John (a runner-up along with the awesome writer, Chika Unigwe, a previous winner of the award) are exactly the kinds of exciting young writers I have in mind when I am talking about innovation in African writing. I have studied those two and think their entries are among the most important narrative to come out of Nigeria in the past decade or so, but we must push the conversation about how best to use $1 million every year. Right now, much of it is being wasted and the prize is seen more as an absurd give away than a real literary prize. There are so many innovative projects that the money could be used for. It is exciting to talk about the Nobel and who they should give their money to, but we have a great opportunity here in the NLNG Prize being wasted like a gas flare. By the way, I would have split the prize between Abubakar and Elnathan, they were both deserving of the award.

8. We need to support not just African writers of fiction and poetry and drama, we should also support the essayists in our midst. At the risk of generalizing, my observation is that African writers don’t do fiction well, many times what they call fiction is autobiography or long theses on social anxieties. Many of these works of fiction should be essays or works of creative nonfiction. Acknowledging these efforts might encourage many African writers to focus on their area of expertise. Even at that, writers should not wait for prizes or seminal events to hurriedly staple together thoughts. Many of the essays on Bob Dylan, for or against, that I have enjoyed were actually written months if not years ago. Western journalists and writers tend to anticipate events and write ahead. May Soyinka live long to torment us with his genius but he won’t live forever. Many Western newspapers have already written his obituary. Our writers are merely waiting. When he passes on to the next pantheon, there will be syrupy pieces on how we drank wine together. Get to work. Today.

9. Writers and thinkers should look at our world and ask hard questions about the way things are – and adjust to the changing of the seasons. I am happy that the award was given to Bob Dylan. Students and fans of Bob Dylan like me fully appreciate the Nobel for not only honoring him, but for in an unintended way, giving a loud nod to the fact that today’s literature is no longer your mama’s literature. Where it was once flat, it is now multi-dimensional, in song, on YouTube, in print and on the oral tradition of my ancestors.

10. So, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize and I am delirious and happy for him, who cares? African literature is undergoing a renaissance. We are making progress. I am happy.

Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Trump, Hurricane Aso Rock, and the silence of lambs…

Corruption kills;
absolute corruption kills absolutely;
so does silence,
aiding, being accessory to the realities
of corruption invested in all kinds of affiliations…

Trapped, double-trapped, triple-trapped…
Everybody is talking about cleansing,
but everyone is afraid of the cleansing lotion.

– Professor Remi Raji, Facebook, October 9, 2016

Silence is not always golden. Sometimes you just run out of things to say. Sometimes the ways of the world simply garrot your voice box. It is what it is. So, the soul visited the seaside all of last week to get away and to be mute witness to two ugly, mean hurricanes, raging demons foaming in the mouth. Hurricane Matthew. Hurricane Trump. Olokun, goddess of the sea cooks up these hurricanes, and the white man names them. And sitting at the feet of rage-waves, I thought of home. Yea, home was on my mind. I would like to go home. But where is home? Dunno. Sigh.thesea

Hurricane Matthews has disgraced those who took Haiti’s billions and gave her nothing but pie charts and PowerPoint slides. Hurricane Trump is racing through America’s catacombs and wreaking major havoc on her anxieties and hypocrisy. This one is for the history books. The Lord is good, the (white) women of America may have finally stopped Hurricane Trump, yes, Trump the bully, Trump the bigot, and Trump the racist. Make no mistake, America reveres her (white) goddesses. Trump found out the following last week: You can make monkey noises at black men and women, you can body shame Mexicans and call their men rapists and America will look you in the eyes and make polite noises, you can call all Muslims terrorists and berate their women. Just don’t defile (white) women, for if you do, you will hear from (white) America. Yup. Trump found out last week.

It is a crying shame; those elected leaders and citizens of stature who were prepared to make a racist and misogynistic buffoon president of the greatest country on earth finally rose in rage and shut down his dream – and our nightmare. Trump should have asked Bill Cosby, his pal in crime (yes, sexual assault is a crime), about sexual assault. Trump has assured us that he is guilty of sexual assault, he should be in the big house, not in the White House. (White) America will make sure of that. Good for them. He scared them. In his new (white) victims, they saw their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. And justice may finally knock on Trump’s gilded doors. This is America, their America, says John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo.

Where were the calls for Trump to step down on account of his well documented bigotry? Where was the outrage? Certainly not at today’s decibel level. I am happy for Hillary Clinton, though. I am #TeamHillary to the very end. She has earned my vote and that of America. In any case, I will never vote for the Republican Party in a partisan race; the Republican party has no place in her heart and soul for people that look like me. But then, the Democratic party has grown to take my loyalty for granted. What has the party done for people of color lately? We must ask these questions. Was it not Bill Clinton that enacted anti-crime laws that prescribed triply harsher drug penalties for poor black youth compared to their richer white counterparts? Was it not Bill Clinton that refused to do anything about the Rwandan genocide because he did not see how it was America’s business? And what has Obama done for Black folks and Africa lately? We may not have anywhere to go, but that does not mean we are fools.

Oh Haiti. Who cares about Haiti? Many do. It is just not obvious. Billions of aid dollars have been sunk in Haiti and it is still so poor, it does not qualify to be a third world nation. Billions of dollars sunk into Haiti that have ended up in the deep greedy pockets of NGOs, an equal opportunity pantheon of the greedy feeding fat on the poor and the vulnerable. If all the billions stolen by NGOs and multinationals were simply dropped on Haitians from airplanes, each Haitian would be a millionaire today. Ditto the IDP camps of Nigeria.

There is a war on the poor and dispossessed everywhere. Come and see America; the poor are locked up in neighborhoods guarded by liquor stores, fast food joints, pawn shops and pay day loan sharks. And with the police, it is a turkey shoot of beautiful people whose only crime is to be black men. Where are intellectuals of color? They are writing pretty books and long essays on injustice from deep within lush summer homes in Martha’s Vineyard. This dispensation has exposed the intellectual rot and hypocrisy within the temples of intellectuals of color. There is a wide sea-gulf between the elite and the poor, fueled by arrogance and ignorance.

Nigeria. Home. There is no need to talk about home anymore. Home is Nigeria. Or is it? And the poet said, prepare for dark days ahead. Dark days are here. There is a picture of a door to a judge’s home torn down by a uniformed mob in the name of fighting corruption. This is a democracy they say. Why is the DSS arresting judges, why? Where is the outrage? Thosepretending to lead Nigeria who have properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Dubai and elsewhere, those who murdered and buried almost 400 Shiites, 400 human beings, 400 Nigerians, with absolutely no consequences, those who feted a Nobel Prize laureate to a $500,000 dinner, are the ones leading this assault on the judiciary and on the opposition in the name of fighting corruption. And we are all silent. Yes, Professor Wole Soyinka, the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. The man has died in all of us. ALL of us.

Sometimes, you just have to be silent because talk is cheap. Sometimes this Diasporan thinks if you can’t do anything to help those trapped in the land you fled from, just shut up and walk away. I should walk away. In any case those who have voices have walked away. They are writing books about poverty disease and deprivation, they are fighting over “literary prizes”, crying louder than the bereaved and worrying about the oppressed of other nations, fighting over definitions of feminism even as they beat up their house help for chilling the red wine (“It should be at room temperature, STUPID WOMAN!”). And yes some learned ones, some writers are defending this outrage. Yes, some are defending this outrage. As in America, this has exposed the greed, intellectual rot and hypocrisy within the temples of Nigerian intellectuals. There is a wide sea-gulf between the elite and the poor, fueled by arrogance and ignorance. Trust me, this will not end well. Why are things the way they are? We don’t know. Or we know. But we are afraid of the answers. Let it not be said that we are children of a lesser god.

Do not ask me what I think. I have said enough. I have said that in Nigeria, thieves are fighting thieves, cheered on by their intellectual hirelings. There is no rule of law, none, nothing but hypocrisy and thuggery. Impunity is the word that fills me with rage and sadness. This is sad. I have said that there clearly is no difference in substance between the APC and the PDP, they are all boll weevils and termites with strong jaws eating up what’s left of our country. Where are those voices that gave Nigerians this hell? Where are they? They should speak up and stop this nightmare. No one is building structures and institutions, no one, Buhari’s regime is too inept, too clueless to care. My heart goes out to the young; to have to stand by helplessly and watch your present and future eaten up by the thug-elders, is worse than anything I can remember.

Someday perhaps, there will be a group of dreamers and doers who want to really help. Until then, talking and talking and talking about these things does not really make anyone feel better. Besides, I am no longer there. Those who really feel this hurt at home must lead the way and tell us how we can help. Where is home? I honestly don’t know. Hurricanes roam the earth and you might as well sit where you are until it all blows over. I have said my own.

And oh, here, click on this link below, here  is important work about South Africa. It is a photo essay about white privilege in South Africa. Political correctness makes the artist look sideways at the truth. There is white privilege in South Africa, yes, but this is now being subsumed by class privilege. The poor blacks of South Africa are going through hell in the hands of the black and white middle and upper middle class elite. Yep, it is beyond a black-white binary though. Mix it up with class and you get really fed up with South Africa. Where are Black Africa’s voices? They are cowering in the cafes of Europe and North America, navel gazing and self-medicating at book readings with free cheese and red wine. Nice pictures, though.




Guest Blog Post by Bolaji Olatunde – Dear contemporary African reader: Contemporary African writers owe you an apology for not being white enough

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This is a response, for the most part, to a thought-provoking essay titled Dear Contemporary African Writer, We Read; We Don’t Just Read You, written by Chisom Nlebedum.

In his essay, Nlebedum bemoans the fact that many young African readers know little or nothing about many other contemporary African writers, and adds that this should not “be misconstrued ‘as another “Africans do not read episode’, for this is already a ludicrous cliché.” Africans may read, but fiction has no place on their list of priorities, especially African fiction.

We must first establish that there are different categories of young Africans—Nlebedum seems to refer to the under “under twenty” category, and seems to have a bias for fiction writers in his criticism. I am Nigerian, and I live and work in Nigeria. I class myself way above the “under twenty” category. Apart from being an aspiring writer myself, I have a daytime job which places me in an environment where I have for colleagues at least forty well-educated Africans of about the same demography as mine, some older, some younger. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that reading fiction has no place in their lives. “Are you preparing for yet another professional exam? You never tire to do exam?” colleagues say to me when I’m seen reading a novel before the beginning, or after the end of the business day—among many Nigerians, one is expected to read only when one is preparing for exams. When a few of them stumble on fiction novels on my person at any given time, all I get are unbelieving looks, mixed with the looks of pity one would give a drug addict well down on the path to perdition.

Nlebedum remarks in his essay that he teaches “kids in Lekki, some of whom have devoured all the series of The Diary of The Wimpy Kid, Harry Porter, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson’s series but who are strangers to the names and works of Chimamanda Adichie, Seffi Attah, Chika Unigwe, Igoni Barret, Helon Habila, Tope Folarin. This may surprise many keen watchers of the African/Nigerian literary scene who consider these names to be the leading lights of contemporary African literature, but it does not surprise me. I was privileged to attend a secondary school with children whose parents dwelt in Lekki-type places; they shared in that widespread Nigerian mindset that all things local are inferior. As a youth in Nigeria in the late 1980s and 1990s, I clearly recall disparaging remarks made by classmates and friends about the African literature we were made to study in school at the time. “The works of Achebe and Soyinka,” one of my pals from a well-heeled home snorted one time. They wanted to read the exotic works of Sidney Sheldon, the thrillers of Fredrick Forsythe, the books by Enid Blyton and James Hadley Chase. The novels about African themes like Things Fall Apart, The Lion and The Jewel and A Grain of Wheat were a bore—we knew all they were talking about; they were too familiar, they were too local. They grudgingly accepted thrillers under the popular Pacesetters imprint, but they were quick to state that they were not as good as the Nick Carter thrillers from America. When I was in the university, I remember criticizing a classmate of mine about his always reading thick western “bestsellers.” His response stays clearly with me to this day: “You want me to go and be reading Things Fall Apart?” We wanted to read stuff written by white folks, the real owners of the English language—some parents gave that mindset the adequate boost by flooding their homes with only such foreign books; my colleagues do the same for their children now. I was spared of this fate, because I had a relatively healthy mix at home. Sometime in 2015, in the company of friends, I was in the sitting room of a Nigerian friend, who resides in Lekki, whose two-year old son found himself instinctively jigging to a television advert for some product or the other, and the theme song was filled with heavy African drum percussion. His embarrassed father turned to us, his visitors, and said jokingly, “I’ve failed as a parent.” Behind this humorous declaration is an undeniable truth—the young African of today has been taught to hate his own heritage and culture, or make it second place to western culture, either consciously, or on a subliminal level.

In the light of this, one is forced to draw the conclusion that the best fate that can befall a contemporary African writer before he or she may find favour with the young African audience, the Lekki-type demography, is to become white, like Furo Wariboko in Igoni Barrett’s Blackass. Only then, will the Lekki-type demography find you worthy of their respect, and their children’s reading time. The overwhelming role of pigmentocracy in our national lives does not just apply to Africa/Nigeria’s economic sphere where expatriates are accorded greater wages and regard than their local counterparts with even better qualifications, it also extends to our cultural makeup. This is why a young Nigerian will read with glee the Harry Porter books, with due encouragement from the Lekki-type parent, who will do all in their power to discourage their child from reading a book about Harry Porter’s African wizard counterpart, written by a contemporary African writer. Everyone knows that a white teenage wizard is much better than an African wizard, the type that the Lekki-type parent takes their children to see the evangelical pastor cast and bind every weekend. Harry Porter is white, like Jesus, and is guaranteed a place in Heaven. The African wizard, that black being, is Satan’s sure companion in Hell in the afterlife.

I do not attempt to discourage the African reader’s interaction with literature from outside the continent. I owe a lot of knowledge to such interaction. For instance, it was in my reading of African American literature I first came to the knowledge of the racist history of the use of the word “boy” to describe black adult males, and of course, its related use in colonial Africa by the European colonialists who regarded the African male, irrespective of age, as one who could never grow out of a child-like state of mind. The post-colonial education Nigerians receive does not eliminate such in-built, unwitting self-hatred. It’s not uncommon to find African intellectuals and civil servants refer to their colleagues and subordinates as “boy” or “my boy,” which is unexpected from folks who should know better. If foreign literature will redress this, we should encourage it, but not to the detriment of our local content.

Nlebedum raises the question: “Who really are the people reading you, dear contemporary African writer?” The question is thrown up by the unavailability of the print editions of the works of these young African writers in bookshops. I would posit that a few devotees, such as myself, and I am sure there are a good number around the continent and in the diaspora, go all out to hunt for these new works. I’m not fond of e-readers, so I do as much as I can to get a hold of the print edition of books. I can sympathise a bit with his dilemma—I recall roaming many bookshops in Abuja before I got a copy of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun in 2010. However, in due course, I identified a few “watering holes”—bookshops—where I spend a great deal of time selecting works by African writers and you can be sure to always discover a new exciting work—it’s not often a cheap hobby. Some of the books can be rather expensive.

The major reason why many of these books are not available in print is that publishing houses in Nigeria are just as practical as businesses anywhere in the world should be—why risk mass producing products that few will buy? It is a matter of simple economics—no demand, no supply, or little demand, little supply. Many readers won’t buy those books, not because they aren’t good, but because they dwell on themes that are too familiar, and they aren’t written by white people, about exotic places that the buyer may never visit, or intends to migrate to and leave, forever, this place called Africa. The Afropolitan writers and their works find better favour with African publishers and the Lekki-type demography for a good reason—they have left the godforsaken continent and gone on to live, study and work in those exotic white places. But, oh well, you can take the African out of Africa, but the African can never write anything as good as Harry Porter, or The Hunger Games.

These contemporary African writers’ works are available on every kind of e-reader you can mention, but they won’t be bought or read by the the Lekki-type parent, who can supply their children with e-readers of various forms, but will not contaminate their children with local African perspectives; it will not help the children prepare well for their insulated journeys to Harvard and Oxford.

Nlebedum states that a new direction of writing by African writers is necessary, works that show that “Africa has evolved, and is now an Africa where we seek equality between the man and the woman; an Africa where the minority and there rights should be protected; an Africa where electorates have discovered the pettiness of their politicians; an Africa that will stand and stands in judgment against those who take sides with the powerful against the powerless.” I must express surprise that as a teacher of literature, Nlebedum is not aware that African writers, the “old school” and the contemporary ones, have been writing about these themes for decades. Recent examples from contemporary African writers are Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Oil Cemetery by May Ifeoma Nwoye, Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician by Tendai Huchu—the list goes on and on. These books ARE available in Lagos—the question is, how dedicated is a prospective reader to the task of finding them? There are tonnes of African novels which explore these themes. As a teacher himself, Nlebedum is not entirely blameless if his students are unaware of contemporary African writers, just as are many African literary scholars who think the only writers worthy of note are those of the 1960s and the contemporary ones canonized by the West, and they are made to sit in judgment every now and then at the NLNG literary prize. Contemporary African writers, he prescribes, should jettison “tales of witches and wizards, of evil powers in high places” but I am very sure that many of Nlebedum’s students, and maybe himself, would give stamps of approval to the works of Stephen King. After all, white horror, is better, more decent, than black/African horror.

Nlebedum complains “of books hurriedly written and printed by hungry writers who are grossly uninformed and are yet to come to terms with the rules of the English grammar.” The aspiring African writers who produce these books have to wage different battles on several fronts. The first front is the traditional publisher who will only publish writers and their works which have been blessed by the West. Not long ago, a popular Nigerian imprint asked for submissions from writers. Months later, the publisher complained that the submissions were filled with grammatical errors, and they all submissions were rejected. If Amos Tutola’s publisher had been so “grammatically-correct”, the magic of his stories would have been lost, forever. “Grammatical errors in a manuscript? No, can’t publish,” says the African publisher. The African writer must not have knowledge that is beyond his or her ken; the western writer knows it all and must be emulated. One would think that editors were invented for a particular reason, or perhaps editing is just too much work.

Writers have to make ends meet too. Having our manuscripts rejected by the continent’s traditional publishers means we have to seek funds to self-publish—anyone burdened with an unpublished manuscript for any length of time can probably identify with this. Waiting around for a gate keeper whose decisions are driven by the West won’t help to put food on the table. Yes, it is important to ensure quality is produced, but a writer doubling as the editor, the publisher and distributor of his or her work may not be a good idea. I often relate my own experience when, filled with excitement and zest, I took the manuscript of my first novel to the expansive, air-conditioned offices of a major Ibadan-based publisher. I was told, by the chief editor, without opening a page of the manuscript and with a sympathetic smile on his face that I would have to bear the entire cost of publication of the novel. However, if I would be willing to write a textbook on accounting—the source of my daily bread—for use by either secondary schools or universities, they would publish that one gratis, without delay. My excitement waned considerably immediately after that meeting.

I often watch with fascination, and inner pride, my younger relatives, become so enamoured of music produced by homegrown, home-based young Nigerian musicians. They pay attention to the gossip, the fashion trends among these music stars, word about which musician is sleeping with whom. The last time we had this level of explosion in that cultural scene was in the 1980s, when we wanted to know why Mike Okri was still hopping in and out of taxis despite having monster hits, when we bought and read Prime People and Vintage People, and wanted to know Charlie Boy’s latest scandal. Then the 1990s rolled in, and American style hip-hop took over. Folks who had no idea what Tupac and Biggie Smalls were talking about became fans of the genre because our music stars stopped producing major stuff, and when they did, the recordings were of poor quality. I believe African literature will experience the same phase in due course. In the 1980s, things that the Achebes, the Soyinkas, the J.P. Clarks did made the front pages of newspapers—they had rock star personas. The closest to that today is Chimamanda Adichie. The real or perceived present poor state of the country’s educational system may cause one to doubt that we’ll soon have fiction writers of such statures dominating pop culture headlines. You don’t need much education to get into the groove of contemporary Nigerian Afrobeats, but you need it to read through a novel. As a stakeholder though, one must be optimistic that the time of African literature to explode like the pop music scene will arrive soon.

The 2016 Caine Prize: The burdens of identity and fading memories

The 2016 Caine Prize shortlist is out and the stories have the African literary community  abuzz: Abdul Adan’s, The Lifebloom Gift, is a dark, troubling story about sexuality and other identities; Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, is a dark, fascinating, and brilliant story about identity, and gentrification; 2013 Caine Prize winner, Tope Folarin’s Genesis, is a dark, haunting commentary on mental illness and a heart-warming story about children growing up in the shadows of their parents’ and Utah’s anxieties; Bongani Kona’s At Your Requiem, is a dark tale of childhood wars (rivalries, child sexual abuse, etc.); and Lidudumalingani’s Memories We Lost, is a dark, affecting tale about sibling and communal love and mental illness. You get the point. It’s all dark, these writers thrive on the edges of a dark, dark, world.

Identity. There is a good conversation to be had: What is African Writing? Who is the African writer? What should the African writer write about? Should we care? This year’s stories shove those questions in the reader’s bemused consciousness. These stories, apart from their unremitting darkness, seem to be about identity (bending). It is called the Caine Prize for African Writing, however it would be interesting to do a study of the places of abode of all the shortlisted writers since inception. African writers love to settle in the West; those that are left behind might as well be in the West, because where they live and love in the lush spaces of Cape Town, Abuja and Lekki could hardly be classified as the Africa of their stories. The Ugandan writer Bwesigye bwa Mesigwire’s question, The Caine Prize for African Writing: Offsetting the continental-diaspora deficit?, remains a debate. Last year, four out of the five shortlisted writers lived abroad in the West. Of the five shortlisted writers of 2016, three live abroad and the other two live in South Africa. Maybe we should call it the Caine Prize for Diaspora Writing. Nah, let’s just call it the Caine Prize, period.

Did I have trouble staying awake while reading the stories? Well, a few  of the shortlisted stories are well written, feature muscular thinking and a truly engaging, but in some cases,  it is a chore for the average reader to stay engaged. Why? Let me make bold to say that this is no longer how we enjoy our stories, not in the 21st century. Today, literature as we know it struggles, and is becoming a dying middle class pastime. As I read some of these stories, I could see people reading them, shrugging halfway, dumping them and moving on to a heckler’s social media timeline. There is a new army of storytellers on the Internet and social media; they have become incredibly influential even as traditional writers jostle for space in the cafes of America and Europe to write traditional pieces for literary prizes.It is our loss, thanks to a failure of (literary) leadership. There should be an innovative way to bring the literature of old to social media and let the  young feast deep on beautiful – and instructive stories. How that is done remains a mystery but it is clear that the traditional way of looking at literature is becoming threatened by the new writing.

 abdul_adanSo what are these stories about? Much of Adan’s The Lifebloom Gift reads like creative nonfiction, sometimes like mere reportage, but it is fairly engaging nonetheless. There is a good interview of Abdul Adan here; I would like to ask him where he rents his demons from. In this story he fights terrifying images that include “giant snakes slithering on bare backs of sunbathers, the kisses of toothless elderly Kazakh couples, the penetrative mouths of hyenas as they disembowel fleeing prey, the longing eyes of Akita dogs, the sweaty waists of African female dancers, the heaving chests of death-row inmates on the execution gurney, the tight jaws of some vindictive men.” And the reader is awed by Adan’s inquisitive energy:

 Ted himself told me that to experience something, one had to touch it. He denied the existence of anything he couldn’t touch, including air, the sun, the sky, the moon, and people he hadn’t touched or at least brushed shoulders with. The untouched individual, he said, is a nonentity. To claim a place in Ted’s gloriously green universe, the individual has to be touched.

Arimah-320Arimah, the Africa regional winner of the 2016 Commonwealth short story prize is a highly regarded writer whose stories regularly make the rounds of prestigious literary magazines. Here is a good interview of her in the New Yorker. Her story, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky is perhaps the most complex and innovative offering on the shortlist. It is playful, experimental, ambitious and quite innovative, with disciplined, gorgeous prose thrown in. This sci-fi story is about love, longing, sexuality, race, racism, boundaries, and class. Arimah upends traditional notions of boundaries and identities with sweet muscle and deftly returns the reader to the present reality. This is not just back to the future. This is back to the future – and the now. Imagine a  near apocalypse:

 Most of what had been North America was covered in water and a sea had replaced Europe. Russia was a soaked grave. The only continents unclaimed in whole or in part by the sea were Australia and what was now the United Countries but had once been Africa. The Elimination began after a moment of relative peace, after the French had won the trust of their hosts. The Senegalese newspapers that issued warnings were dismissed as conspiracy rags, rabble-rousers inventing trouble. But then the camps, the raids, and the mysterious illness that wiped out millions. Then the cabinet members murdered in their beds.

In a delightful play on today’s global reality, there is a global upheaval, and those that were displaced and offered succor (whites) triumphed and the hosts (people of color) were none the better for their generosity. You chuckle wryly as  the protagonist observes that a roomful of the children (of color) of the displaced “was as bare of genius as a pool of fish.” It is a lovely story, there are all these sophisticated sentences showing off deep beauty:

The only time she’d felt anything as strongly was after her mother had passed and her father was in full lament, listing to the side of ruin.


Oxford. 8/7/13. Bodleian Library. The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013. Winner, Tope Folarin. Picture by: David Fleming

Folarin’s Genesis is about a tough childhood that manages to touch all your emotional spots. In this seemingly semi-autobiographical piece (Folarin is quite candid about his mother’s health issues as this interview shows) every word is a living breathing witness of the struggles of young children trying to survive a war:

There is the sweet pain of the parents’ exile in America, away from Nigeria:

But this was America. And they were in love. They moved into a small apartment in Ogden, Utah, and began a family. I came first, in 1981, and my brother followed in 1983. Dad attended his classes during the day while Mom explored the city, and at night my parents held each other close and spoke their dreams into existence. They would have more children. My father would start a business. They would become wealthy. They would send their children to the best schools. They would have many grandchildren. They would build their own version of paradise on a little slip of desert in a country that itself was a dream, a place that seemed impossible until they stepped off the plane, shielding the sun from their eyes, and saw for themselves the expanse of land that my father had idly pointed to on a fading map many years before.

 There is the deep pain of the burden of the mother’s descent into mental illness and resulting marital abuse:

My mother’s illness began to reveal itself to us shortly after we moved into our two bedroom apartment, a tiny place near the center of town with pale yellow walls and bristly carpet. Mom’s voice, once quiet and reassuring, grew loud and fearsome. Her hugs, once warm and comforting, became cold and rigid. And then Mom became violent—she would throw spoons and forks at my father whenever she was upset. She quickly worked her way up to the knives.

 Kona’s At Your Requiem is your traditional African writing fare. Delivered in the first person, it reads like a piece of a long work in progress, perhaps a book. It is ostensibly about childhood and the ravages of adult dysfunctions and the quiet horror of child sexual abuse:

One night Aunt Julia was naked when I got under the duvet. It was winter. I remember the percussion of raindrops splashing against the tiled roof. She held me close, tight, my head pinned against her breasts. I pushed her away, or tried to, but she held firm. She unbuttoned my pyjamas. I lay in there, limp, my eyes wide open. I felt her bony fingers, cold against my chest, circling lines around my ribcage. ‘My beautiful boy,’ she whispered, as she kissed my belly button. ‘You’re my little husband. Who’s my little husband? You’re my little husband.’

 I think I cried, but I’m not sure.

bongani_konaThis was my least favorite read; deadly proxy for the stereotypical African writer’s cringe-worthy self-absorption, narcissistic, with a false sense of the invincible reeling out paragraph after paragraph of familiar, tired reportage. Kona’s story dredges up familiar issues, it is social commentary (child abuse) wrapped in the dignified toga of fiction, like stories made to order for an African NGO’s  hustle. The design is awkward, defective even. It is a forgettable story considering that it is a crude attempt at magic realism; one of the two main protagonists commits suicide, is hastily resurrected, presumably for the benefit of the Caine Prize, goes back in time to assist the author to tell a too tall tale. Too bad; the character – and the story should have been left alone to die and rest in peace. It doesn’t help that Kona’s story suffers from sloppy editing. There is documented evidence that at one time the story may have been written in the third person. And the attempt to resuscitate Dambudzo Marechera’s spirit: “You got your things and left.” SMH

Lidudmalingani It is easy to fall in love with Lidudumalingani’s Memories We Lost. It seems autobiographical, this tale of a community’s attempt to help a family deal with mental illness, but don’t be fooled; Lidudumalingani is an awesome artist, and he writes as one who knows and loves his corner of Africa intensely:

 I stared out into the landscape that began in my mother’s garden and stretched far beyond sight. The sun was setting behind the forest and dust was floating everywhere. Where the dust was dense, one could see it sway this way and that way as if in the middle of a dance. A sophisticated dance, the kind that, I imagined, happened in other worlds, very far from the village. The village was settling into repose. The cold summer air had begun to torment the villager’s bare legs and arms. Everything was in silhouette, including the horses that trotted across the veld, the cattle that lowered their heads to graze, and the water that flowed down the cliff. The mountains, ancient but nevertheless still standing, were casting giant shadows over the landscape. The shadows stretched so far from the mountain that they began to exist as if they were solid entities on their own.

 … Those without torches or candles walked on even though the next step in such darkness was possibly a plunge down a cliff. This was unlikely, it should be said, as most of them were born in the village, grew up there, got married there, had used that very same field as their toilet for all their lives, and had had in overlapping periods only left the village when they went to work for the white man in large cities. They had a blueprint of the village in their minds; its walking paths, its indentations, its rivers, its mountains, its holes where ghosts lived were imprinted in their blood.

 And on and on the narrative goes in seductive prose; portraits everywhere. Lidudumalingani’s eyes are a pair of powerful cameras that combine with his talent for prose to engage the reader on a journey of love and pain. Incidentally there is a good piece here on his eye for photography. I thank the Caine Prize for introducing me to Lidudumalingani’s restless and eclectic world. And oh yes, I have a long review of his story on Brittlepaper (here).

So what do I think about all of this? It is interesting, Alison Flood, writing in the UK Guardian about Tope Folarin, notes the comments made by Delia Jarrett-Macaulay about the emergent theme of the Caine Prize entries.

The five shortlisted stories were chosen from 166 submissions, representing 23 African countries. Chair of judges, the writer and academic Delia Jarrett-Macauley, said there had been an increasing number of fantasy and science fiction stories submitted this year, also noting a “general shift away from politics towards more intimate subjects – though recent topics such as the Ebola crisis were being wrestled with”.

The shortlist, she said, is “an engrossing, well-crafted and dauntless pack of stories … It was inspiring to note the amount of risk-taking in both subject matter and style, wild or lyrical voices matching the tempered measured prose writers, and stories tackling uneasy topics, ranging from an unsettling, unreliable narrator’s tale of airport scrutiny, to a science-fictional approach towards the measurement of grief, a young child’s coming to grips with family dysfunction, the big drama of rivalling siblings and the silent, numbing effects of loss,” said Jarrett-Macauley. “The panel is proud to have shortlisted writers from across the continent, finding stories that are compelling, well-crafted and thought-provoking.”

From my perspective, apart from one or two stories, I did not see much in terms of risk-taking and innovation. There were some good attempts but writers need to do more. And then there is the issue of the purpose of the prize, in the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong, the Caine Prize has done all the right things in the pursuit of excellence in writing among writers of African descent. Over the years, a robust conversation has ensued as to the purpose and trajectory of the prize. Lizzy Attree, director of the Caine Prize spoke to some of these concerns in this interview with Nick Mulgrew. Last year’s Caine Prize winner, Namwali Serpell, caused a stir when she gave some candid feedback to the organizers of the prize and split her winnings with her fellow contestants. Identity has been an issue; who should vie for these prizes? An unintended consequence of the competition for the Caine Prize in this question: Where is the equity in seeming to pit Diaspora writing against indigenous African writing (by those based at home)? What should folks be writing about? Who should be the audience? Is it appropriate to allow previous winners to continue to vie for the prize? So many questions.

The Caine Prize is in search of a fresh purpose; today’s Africa is not really the postcolonial Africa of old, and all prizes targeted at African writing should reflect the new realities of writing and Africa, especially in the age of the Internet and social media. In the initial years of the prize, one could honestly say that the Caine Prize helped in identifying new talent; indeed many of them went on to become internationally renowned stars. That is changing, and I don’t think it is a good thing. A few hopefuls are repeat returnees to the shortlist (Elnathan John being the most famous) and this year, Tope Folarin became the second prior winner to be on the shortlist again (Segun Afolabi returned last year). Does Arimah really need the Caine Prize? Some would say she is already a precious commodity anywhere in the world where serious writing is judged. She is already a word goddess, what is the point of holding up to the light people who are already blinding the world with the brilliant lights of their literary stardom?

Those who criticize the Caine Prize raise excellent points, but I concede that to the extent that it is directed at the Prize, the criticisms give the impression of entitlement and privilege. Today’s writers should bear most of the blame. The reader seeks genuine innovation in the writing; bold and energetic pieces that keep folks glued to the reading monitor. This is the 21st century. In all seriousness, I pray daily that the equivalent of iTunes comes to rescue the vast majority of African writers from the tyranny of orthodoxy. They seem to spend the best part of their productive lives hoping to land that book contract or win that prize. The odds are beyond intimidating. Which is sad. And frustrating. The best writing of this generation of writers is on the Internet and on social media. And it is really good stuff. Sadly, but understandably most African writers have no choice but to submit themselves to the tyranny of the lottery that passes for traditional publishing.

 Again, let me be honest, there are good pieces on the shortlist (Arimah, Folarin, Lidudumalingani were my best reads) but, beyond those pieces, even with them, I’d rather be on the web reading. Let me repeat: Traditional, analog writing is losing readership and influence. Writing (especially in Africa) is becoming a dying middle class pastime. Why? I see innovation on the web, I see precious little of that elsewhere. Meanwhile, really brilliant writing is being read for free by gleeful readers. Writers should be paid for their innovation and industry on social media. There is hope. Soon, an app will come that will lock down all these offerings and allow readers access to them – for a modest fee. I am having way too much fun. For free. That is not the fault of the Caine Prize. It is what it is.

Finally, and this is important, we must reflect on why the Internet and social media have introduced true, indigenous African English to millions of African readers, and why as a result traditional writing is suffering from benign neglect. I previously wrote about this in this essay, Of African literature and the language and the politics of the stories and I said this:

The West deserves credit for almost single-handedly sustaining African literature with funding and an eager paying readership. However, it has come at a cost on at least one important level; many African writers eager to be published and salivating at prestigious literary platforms have largely allowed the West to distort the literary language in their books. It is almost understandable, these writers are not negotiating from a position of strength, so they watch helplessly as words and terms that make sense in African settings are jury-rigged for Western tastes by Western editors whose awesome editorial skills are hugely compromised by their cultural cluelessness. As an aside, I really believe now that Western editors need to collaborate with the few African editors out there as they prepare African literature for the print shop. The Western reader enjoys the new language of discourse but it is painful to read as an African. So much in contemporary fiction in the books published in the West has been distorted for the simple reason that there is a buying audience that needs to understand these things. It is an economic decision but the implications for Africa and the trajectory of her stories are enormous and mostly tragic.

In these works of fiction, we see the unintended consequence of Western patronage of African writing – a crippling loss of language. And a muffling of powerful voices drowned in the alien applause of an adoring Western audience. It is not all bad, there is some hope; the advent of a robust literary culture on the Internet and on social media has amplified this issue; the democratization of story-telling in the digital space has allowed an emerging generation of writers to just be themselves – to simply write in their own “African English” language. Sadly, to the extent that African literature is judged almost exclusively by books published in the West, it is appropriate to address the distortion in language – and trajectory of the narrative, because the gatekeepers of African literature continue to ignore the fact that the vast majority of African writing today is on the Internet.

I rest my case. Now, let me go back to typing “LOL” on salacious, delightfully inane crap on Facebook. LOL!

Facebook Nation (For Izuma)

I come from a land that has streets with no names. Our people did not name the streets of our village because they saw the coming of smartphones, Google, e-mail and Facebook and whatnot.

Well, the little path that goes from my father’s village to my mother’s village is called the little path. Was. The little path is no more. My father’s father was buried by the path half way to my mother’s people. He is no longer buried there. A government thief built an ugly mansion over his bones. In the land of my ancestors, people don’t venture far from the earth. There are no mortuaries, when they die they practically fall into their graves themselves. We are simple people; it is complicated.

I have ventured far, very far from home. When I left home, no Facebook messages charted my way out of Africa into America’s issues. My parents put me inside this capsule to somewhere and hoped that someday I would be back. I am still here in America. I am not going back soon.

Today, I stare at the remains of winter in America; earth, frosting on chocolate cake. After all these moons, alien images and clichés stick to me, white on rice. Nothing stays the same. Not in America. The changes make me dizzy and I obsess non-stop about the way things used to be.

Here in my part of America, our drugstore no longer has human cashiers. The owners remodeled the store, and replaced humans with machines that talk to you. You walk up to a machine, scan your goods, pay and leave. It is very disconcerting; I keep looking for humans to return, I actually miss them. I know now that I love people and I cannot shake this cold unfeeling nothingness I get from interacting with a machine that proves its indifference with faux warmth.

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

Life is war. We were all born into a war that we did not ask for. And people write about our world; sometimes it is mostly gory. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Achebe, they belonged to a certain era when one had no choice but to concentrate all of one’s creative passions on one medium of expression – the book.

I read a lot of books, mostly about the condition we find ourselves as people of color in a white man’s world. It is a shame that we are talking about books because in my clan we are steeped in the oral tradition. Some of the world’s greatest “books” have been “read” to us in song by our ancestors. My mother, Izuma is one of the world’s greatest living poets; she has not written a lick. She would be great on YouTube. She would at least help to preserve one of our dying languages.

On Facebook, walls are colorful wrappers wound tightly around a billion new municipalities of ME. Facebook is falling leaves, hearts fluttering, forlorn, drying on yesterday’s clothes lines. People are waving hasty goodbyes out the windows of indifferent relationships. It is complicated. Life goes on. There are no nations as we remember them.Facebook. The new frontier has edged into our consciousness. Africa. We fled her angry windows for Facebook Nation.

On Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

There are many reasons to read Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. It is a thoughtful, gentle, dignified and deeply insightful work with pretty, no, elegant prose thrown in for good measure. The beauty and depth of the prose alone are enough motivation to read this book. This is not your traditional fare from the dusty shelves of orthodox African literature, this is good stuff, recommended reading, not only for individual readers, but for classrooms where these kinds of things are taught. This is how to write. Yes, the first thing the reader notices about the book is its quality. There is quality everywhere you look; in the production, in the prose, and in the depth of the content. All of this is wrapped in sublime elegance. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun hearkens to a time when African writers were not so consumed by superciliousness, a time when the dialogue was respectful and deeply insightful, a time when African characters were not Stepin Fetchit stick figures mumbling in the dark, caricatures hastily erected by African writers for the poverty porn single story that sells in the West. Indeed the book says we are the sum of our experiences, life is complicated and identity is what you make of it. This reader was so taken by this slim volume (a little under 120 pages of dreamy pleasure) he read it twice. It is a slim volume but that is deceptive; there are so many layers to the story. Manyika is expertly coy and cunning in rousing the readers’ curiosity. Words expertly placed at literary attention make you reach for Google – and revel in enchanting worlds within worlds.

Manyika’s approach to writing this novella is unique and innovative. It is a narrative in the first person built around Dr. Morayo Da Silva, the main protagonist. The world is not what it seems, certainly not according to Dr. Morayo Da Silva. She is a retired professor of literature living a charming existence in beautiful San Francisco. At 75, retired and divorced, she is enjoying the winter of her life. The aging process with its associated medical, social and spiritual challenges inspires Da Silva to reflect on her life’s journey so far. The story is told with the aid of several other characters who as they weave in and out of her life help the reader through an engaging thread of conversations around several themes. This slim volume is is what Chinua Achebe would have called dry-meat-that-fills-the-mouth. Manyika introduces you to new knowledge, slyly, ever so slyly, she drops hints and you go looking for them, lovingly, many times using the works of writers, like the “love crumbs” in e.e. cummings’ erotic poem, i like my body when it is with your.

 MuleLike a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is a marked improvement over Manyika’s first novel In Dependence. Where In Dependence seems tentative and unsure of itself, this novella is a bundle of quiet self-assured confidence and eclecticism. Take the title, it is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s oddly eclectic and brilliant poem, Donkey On which, like the novella, ends on a hopeful, joyfully defiant note, giving a sweet middle finger to what passes for living. The book is about relationships and connections to hearts and spaces spanning decades and bleeding into the 21st century, with its promises and challenges. Globalization is not a cliché here, the call centers of Mumbai are a reality and a looming menace. In between the spaces of time, there are all these anxieties that the reader can relate to; sexuality, ethnic cleansing, feminism, and power struggles against patriarchy and class. The themes seem familiar but they come across as fresh. This is not the effete and tired faux narrative of the allegedly, dispossessed, Africa Rising, that reverse pity party of the African middle class taking selfies in front of mimic cafes and fast food restaurants in Lekki and Abuja. Kudos to Manyika; it takes quiet brilliance to start a conversation – for example, without once mentioning the word feminism and Manyika pulls it off mostly. In this book, the reader listens to the voice of a mature sage, and the mind is soaked in the rich perks of age. It bears repeating: Manyika’s novella is gentle and respectful, it is not the caricature that passes for life in many works of African literature. It tackles the same subjects but one gets the sense that one is reading a complex narrative, not just a memoir wrapped in the pretend toga of fiction. The reader is immersed in a good conversation about identity and it is impossible not to think of some of the works of Taiye Selasi, Teju Cole, and to a lesser degree Chris Abani (in The Virgin of Flames), without the in-your face, edgy, and, sometimes contrived, deep drilling of subject matter. Like the works of these authors, it is brilliant still. Afropolitanism is not a word in the book, but it shines through and you want to have that conversation, instead of a yelling match. It’s all about identity: Dr. Da Silva is a Nigerian, but is she? Why? In the 21st century, she is the sum of all the places she’s been.

 What is this book about? It is complicated: The book’s protagonist, seems to suffer from age-related memory loss, she is possibly a hoarder who hides money in strange places in her apartment. She does yoga and poses in tadasana, and is passionate about hot rods and pretty shoes. She is into Scuba diving, swimming, and tattoos. A  near idyllic existence is broken literally by a fall. And things fall apart. But then she rebounds. She is an enigma, full of paradoxes, sophisticated but not too sophisticated to fall prey to Nigerian scam artists. Through her ordeal we engage love, betrayal, longing, heartbreak, exile and everything in between those anxieties. We read a lot through this eclectic woman; there is the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and we learn about writers like Nadine Gordimer José Saramago, Derek Walcott, Jean Rhys. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Earnest Gaines as well as C.L.R. James. The book invites you to read it carefully, there are intriguing riddles in many sentences, one learns a lot.What the protagonist remembers about Nigeria are not always pleasant but they are the reality. The reader learns about Boko Haram and sectarian violence at a time when the country is helpless at violence in Agatu and Enugu, fuming at the effete insolence and silence of those sworn to protect the people. There is a sad commentary on Nigerian societies’ attitude toward mental illness:

 As a child I only remember one mad person – man or woman, I forget. Was it a bare-breasted woman who removed her wrappa to reveal a torn and dirty petticoat? Did she shriek and scratch her head? Or does this memory come from the book of my imagination? Or was it a man with thick, knotty, lice-infested hair? He was the only bearded man I saw in those days. I never dared to look too closely for fear that his curses might land on me. All the children knew that somewhere between this madman’s legs hung a large penis. Swinging. Menacingly. (P 45-46)

 That penis. And Abulu the iconic mad man in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen comes to the mind, nothing changes:

 He was robed from head to foot in filth. As he rose spryly to stand, some of the filth rose with him, while some was left in patches on the ground. He had a fresh scar on his face just below his chin, and his back was caked with a dripping mess from some dead mango in a state of putrefaction. His lips were dried and cracked. His hair was unkempt; it stretched like tendrils, giving him the appearance of a Rastafarian. His teeth, most of which were blackened as if singed, reminded me of fire-blowing gypsies and circus players who blew fire from their mouths and probably, I thought, burned their teeth. The man lay bare before our eyes, stark naked except for a shred of rag which hung loosely from his shoulder down to his waist; his pubic region was covered with a dense foliage of hair in the midst of which his veiny penis hung limply like trouser rope. His legs were bursting with taut varicose veins.

Obioma, Chigozie (2015-04-14). The Fishermen: A Novel (pp. 80-81). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

 Nothing changes, but change is all around Dr. Da Silva’s world. It is the 21st century. Da Silva keeps a healthy distance from the communication tool du jour – social media, the internet, texting, etc. And she asks wistfully:

Whatever happened to all those friends who used to send letters and postcards? Now people just zap off emails or no notes at all. And then, of course, so many friends have died. (p 4)

The dysfunctions of class rear their head; we see the upper middle class thumbing their noses at the less privileged who are privileged to be their house help using language the African middle class inherited from the colonial masters, treating the house help as subhuman beings. One could get a doctoral dissertation from studying this aspect of Nigerian culture.

 It is not a perfect book. It is well-edited, however in Chapter 2, the narrator is in the second person, but then Mrs. Da Silva, the main protagonist shows up – in the first person. Jarring. What makes the book unusual also makes it weak on the surface. You won’t find a plot, just like life. Instead it is written and presented like a thick juicy center cut of a larger work that will appear in the future. Manyika invested a lot of quality time in the development of a few characters; the rest seem to suffer from her inattention. The result is some characters that seemed inchoate, loitering around and then disappearing abruptly like puzzling question marks. The central character suffers from a certain narcissism and some key subjects like bigotry are only scantily sketched. But then, this is America, who needs the constant reminder of Babylon’s madness? Manyika could have deleted a couple of chapters and the novella would have been better for it. But then you read elegant to-die for prose like this and you forgive the book’s flaws: “… and pats of butter so cold they sit, like hard-boiled sweets, refusing to melt on the hill of pancakes.” (p 45)

 Interestingly, Paul Auster’s memoir, Winter Journal mentioned in the book and seems to have inspired Manyika’s novella, because the themes of both books are parallel. The reviews of Winter Journal are scathing. J. Robert Lennon writing in the Guardian says this:

The new book is a rambling, informal collection of memories, musings, and minutiae, presented in the second person and loosely connected by the themes of ageing and the body. It strives to give the impression that is was written extemporaneously, for the author’s own pleasure, and never intended to be published. In fact, it feels posthumous, as though discovered among Auster’s papers after his death and rushed to publication to coincide with some anniversary or memorial.

 Not to be outdone, Meghan O’Rourke of the New York Times piles on rather cruelly:

 Written in the second person (as if Auster were trying to separate, once and for all, the writing self from the body whose life it is describing), “Winter Journal” is a fragmentary and circuitous essay about aging that feels, a little too often, more sketched out than digested. It contains an examination of the body and its frailty and desires; a catalog of the author’s many residences in Paris and in Brooklyn; a reflection on the end of his first marriage; and an elegy for his mother, who died in 2002… “Winter Journal” is not all that philosophical, and its meditative sections have a turgid quality, like a sauce that’s overthickened.”

 There are some who would quibble similarly with portions of Manyika’s book, especially if they measure it against orthodoxy.  This reader enjoyed the book and appreciates the fact that Manyika dared to be different and did not strive to check the boxes of orthodoxy in order to be accepted, especially in the West. Which brings me finally to Manyika’s decision to use an African publisher, rather than to publish it in the West, where her contemporaries take serious pieces to. She starts out the conversation in the UK Guardian:

 “Some people are sceptical about my decision to work with an African publisher, especially given the fact that I live in America and have access to American and European agents. They ask: does my decision make economic sense? Will an African publisher do as well as a western publisher? Behind these polite enquiries, the real question that I feel is being asked is whether an African publisher can be as good as a European or an American. The assumption is that the west does things better than Africa.

My answer is: of course, they can be just as good or just as bad. They can be even better or even worse.”

manyikaManyika’s decision is a brave gamble; the surest way to attain international stature and prestige is to be published in the West. Here is a good piece by Catherine Byaruhanga that explains why in much of Black Africa book reading is an upper middle class pastime. The cost of books has priced most out of a habit that should be a civil right. Many African readers are self-medicating on free fare from the Internet. This is a small but necessary step; if all Africans started subjecting themselves to the compromised institutions of Black Africa they would be more motivated to fight for structural change. In the age of the Internet, Africa has to look at holistic and comprehensive ways to provide a robust analog and digital infrastructure that supports publishing and reading. Kudos to Sarah Ladipo Manyika for walking the tough talk. This reader has grown to admire and respect Cassava Republic, Manyika’s publisher. Over the years, they have become more competitive and showcased works that can compete anywhere in the world. It is good that writers like Manyika are patronizing indigenous publishers, brave souls, but I encourage everyone to look for good publishers anywhere they can find them; life is too short to be that patriotic. In any case, it is the only way we can foster competition. As far as I am concerned many of these “publishing houses” are giant stapling guns. They should just go away.  In the meantime, read this book and marvel at the brilliant mind of she who knows a lot and shows it off sassily as she tools around the catacombs of San Francisco in a 993. A 993? Google it, that’s what your smartphone is for, LOL.

Life is not short: This life as haiku

I came to America from Nigeria several moons ago, me, a frightened man-child armed with a suitcase, the hopes and blessings of my ancestors. Today in America, my two daughters go to school in the suburbs and they come back home and teach me something new about America. Every day, my little girls come home to me with a little piece of America. The teachers touch my children and my children touch me. A thousand moons after America adopted me, I still marvel at the America that I see through my daughters’ eyes.”

Ikhide Roland Ikheloa, The Washington Post, July 7, 2002


I am not a writer. But I practise being one because you don’t need a license to write. You just write and gbam! you are a writer.

I hate to brag; The Washington Post once published me. 100 words. I think it was less, after they’d edited my fantastic tales. I was over the moon. Literally. And figuratively. I shall explain.

Every Sunday, the Washington Post would invite the reader to write something short and personal and if it suited the Post’s fancy, the piece would get published on a Sunday along with a picture (yes, a Post photographer actually comes to you, takes a billion pictures out of which the one you hate the most is used). For the picture, I wore a wretched tie dye shirt that reeked of the West’s Africa and suffering, and held on to my kids, an African grateful to America for saving me from a war that was Africa. Truth is, when I left Africa, I left heaven and came to a former haven that had been paved into hell (that is not original, do not applaud me please!).

Many African writers, me included, should be hauled before a Truth Commission and made to apologize profusely to Africa for all the lies we have told against her, for fame and fortune. We are ingrates. And hustlers.

Well, truth is, I knew once I started writing that I would be published. Why? I started my fable thusly: “Many moons ago..,” and ended with a weepy expression of gratitude to America for what, I don’t remember. Africa as the exotic other, America as the savior of the cute African. The Washington Post loved it. And I became a published writer.

I have since written a few other pieces to great and enthusiastic reception by Western editors enthralled by my “enthusiastic” prose. There are days I hate writing, it is so phony, many times.

Many American publishers seem fascinated by the bullshit narrative of immigrants; “aliens” who come from places where the natives measure time in moons, go to the river to bathe and shit, etc. I write about moons a lot. I don’t know why moons appear often in my narrative, in real life the moon holds no special fascination for me, except for a brief stint in our ancestral village, during the Nigerian civil war, I lived in the cities of Nigeria most of my life there and I don’t remember the moon much, the cities are very civilized, hehehe, there’s a lot of smog and so I am proud to say that I did not see any pristine moon.

About wild animals, I have an uncle we call Elephant and there was this other uncle who lived in the forests of a place called Omolege, who used to bring us meat he claimed was from an elephant. Our mother Izuma would cook the hide for hours, and offer it to us kids. The hide was thick and as tender as a stone, you could chew that sucker for months and we did.

I digress, excuse me. I believe I did see an elephant in a zoo in Ibadan or Benin City in the early 70’s. There are unreliable reports that the elephant was converted to dinner by irate zookeepers who had not been paid for months. Or maybe that was the Zoo in Washington DC, they have had issues with being paid over there on occasion, the almost annual federal government shutdown and whatnot, dunno jor.

Why do we write these things? Well, every African writer will deny this in public but will tell you privately that his or her dream is to be published by a Western outfit, journal, newspaper, publishing house, etc,, etc. – Guernica, Eclectica, The New Yorker, The New York Times, etc. etc. Our elders say you have not arrived until you have been published by Guernica. An email acceptance is usually cause for raucous joy.

Our star writers would never be seen dead writing in a Nigerian newspaper; that would sully their brand, who does that? Do you blame them though? I don’t know about the rest of Africa, but Nigeria is undergoing a crisis in its newspaper and publishing industries. The quality of the output over there is highly suspect and ambitious writers know to go to more robust institutions in the West where your work is guaranteed to be raked through the coals by a beady-eyed eagle of an editor, and at times subjected to a peer review.

Over there in Babylon, their bullshit factor is low. I once submitted a piece for Guernica, my experience was hellish; the editing was relentless, the editor politely but firmly asked me to substantiate assertions and claims in my essay, who does that? They could tell my bullshit factor was high. It was a lot of work getting published over there. I made a mental note never to return to Guernica to write again, ever. Nonsense. Why, outside of Molara Wood and NEXT and Farafina, and Nkem Ivara, no Nigerian editor has ever as much as edited a letter in my pieces. It is all cut-and-paste.

What is my point? I don’t know. I am just rambling, bored to my gills and writing whatever comes to my head. I crave elephant ponmo. Literature is dead. Long live social media. Good night.


Juliane Okot Bitek: 100 Days of hell’s anomie

History matters. There are many ways to commemorate, to memorialize communal horror. All over the world, memorials and museums stand sentry to history, to various times when the darkness within seemed to overwhelm humanity and throw up the unmentionable like the holocaust, Biafra, Bosnia, and now Rwanda. Yes, over twenty years ago, in 1994, beginning in April, within a span of 100 horrible, blood-drenched days, the Hutu took machetes and other crude implements of savagery and hatred and hacked down approximately one million Tutsis (and moderate Hutus). Those who are strangely not familiar with this sordid aspect of world history should read this primer by the BBC on the genocide. The thinker Wandia Njoya (@wmnjoya on Twitter) also has an incisive piece that situates the genocide in its proper context and assigns appropriate responsibility to all the players in this horror of horrors.

 History matters. There are many ways to remember the past. In addition to physical artifacts of remembrance, writers, thinkers and artists have memorialized trauma in prose and theatre. Read Elie Wiesel’s Night and be numbed by his stark and searing narrative on the concentration camps of the holocaust. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is an epic ode to the horror that was Biafra and the Nigerian civil war. In Rwanda, as in previous crimes against humanity, the world chose to look away. America under the leadership of President Bill Clinton knew of an impending genocide and chose to do nothing. There is not a shortage of immortal words commemorating man’s inhumanity to man.

100So the other day, this book came in the mail; Juliane Okot Bitek’s 100 Days, a book of poetry about Rwanda, genocide, pain, living, dying, loving, about connections and dislocations in a time of madness. One hundred days to be precise. It sat staring at me, willing me to read of a time when it seemed that the world went mad and looked away as Rwanda boiled in a cauldron of whirling machetes and hate. And the text came: ‘My dad’s health has declined since last night. They say he doesn’t have much longer if you would like to come see him.” And as I do when I am under stress I grabbed the book and took it with me to the hospice to go say goodbye to a part of me. And as I read Bitek’s poems to the living dying in that room, I was overcome by the power of her words and the comforting healing of the poems from someone so far away. The poems spoke to both of us in our grief. What are words if they cannot lift you and carry you past the valley of darkness?

Major kudos to the University of Alberta Press (@UAlbertaPress on Twitter), publishers of 100 Days; it is a gorgeous book, well edited, you should read it. It is poetry and it is not poetry, the fluidity of the verse defies definition, in a good way. The reader is forced to ask the question: What is poetry and does it matter if you don’t call it poetry? It is simply enough for one to say, 100 Days is a compilation that came straight out from deep within Bitek’s rich soul and made this reader’s cells dance in celebration of a life ebbing away into the next pantheon. Bitek’s ability to connect with the beauty and pain of human suffering seems supernatural, this ability to give voice to those who seem to have no voices. Bitek wrote this book with her blood and it shows.

 You should read 100 Days, there are connections, physical, emotional and spiritual in every page of this fascinating collection of connections. Each day is a poem. Each day reveals a new dawn, a new theme, or many themes. Bitek is a gifted seer, she sees tomorrow with a sweet but earthy, guttural voice, voice of the masquerade. And betrayal is a constant theme, the voice reminds the earth.

but it was the earth that betrayed us first
in those one hundred days that would never end

100 Days is a long lament in the tradition of the ancients, long running, punishing the conscience, no question marks, no commas, no periods, a long harrowing lament that grabs you by the head and forces you to listen to the victim, and be drenched in the sweaty rage of the not-so helpless.

 Words leapt into our eyes
& burned this new knowledge that was never new

but it was the earth that betrayed us first
in those one hundred days that would never end

what is it to come from a land that swallows its own people

how can we exist outside of betrayal
by time & land

100 Days is about Rwanda. But then it is not only about Rwanda. It is about everywhere really as Bitek reminds us in her note to the reader:

“How and where do the experiences of survivors of genocide in Rwanda match those of survivors from Bosnia and northern Uganda? All three places were steeped in war and violence at the same time. What is it to be from a place where bloodshed of your kin darkens the soil, makes the river run red and that that’s not newsworthy?”

In these powerful pages one is confronted with a starkness, with a painful loss of innocence, the poems are almost one song, it as if I am listening to the poets of the sixties, the poets of Vietnam, of Biafra, Simon and Garfunkel wailing the sad, beautiful song, The Boxer. This is what Bitek does; she takes the reader to places in the heart that the writer never intended or imagined. That is powerful, how she makes 100 Days a deeply personal journey for each reader.

We walked when our legs could carry us
childhood rhythms carried us along
songs from days of innocence
like holding hands
like soft embraces

 And so, a hundred days becomes a frightening character in a book of horrors, this vehicle that swallowed so many innocents whole in the blood of a mean land.

 What do crickets know about innocence
were they not there
did they not see more than we did
By staying closer to the ground than we ever were

 innocence is power without experience
innocence is a knowing untempered

  Imagine a world in which evil is a numbing cliché. It is our world.

a machete hangs like a mockery of time
like a semblance of that reality
in which another machete
& other machetes hanged
for what seemed like a long time
but eventually they come down
again & again & again & again & again

even time measured in machete strokes
can never be accurate

100 Days grabs you, not letting go, telling you of the truths you won’t look at it in the face. And you feel the heavy emptiness, the disempowering weight of grief as helplessness is measured in the relentless cycle of unending time.

After all this
time flashes
time drags
nothing as nothing  just as it was
a nothingness

JulianeBitek reminds us with the force and clarity of her verses that poems can serve as cameras into the soul of a troubled world. The remembering is painful but necessary, this holocaust museum in the soul. This is horror neatly catalogued like the surviving finger with the ring, missing her nine companions. Words are powerful here, describing the powerlessness of being. And the whole notion of reconciliation as avoidance is birthed. And organized religion is an enabler.

The beauty of 100 Days is that it asks all the right questions about what did not happen in Rwanda. As an aside it is interesting that a mere twenty years after that genocide, the word reconciliation has been bandied about until it is chic for photographers like Pieter Hugo to take  staged portraits of victims and perpetrators in ways that they would not dare of the holocaust. As in South Africa and Rwanda, the powerless reach for the placebo of reconciliation, while with the holocaust, the talk to this day is of justice and punishment. That is how it should be.

100 Days is also a conversation about the power of the Internet and social media to make connections among artists and allow for productive collaboration. As Bitek explains it, these poems started out as a collaboration of sorts with the Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu (@Wangechimutu on Twitter) who in April 2014 started posting a series of photographs tagged #kwibuka20#100Days on social media. Indeed, on Bitek’s blog there is an online version of the book in which each day, Mutu’s photographs are juxtaposed side by side with Bitek’s poems for each day. I think the collaboration should have been extended to the book, the pictures would have helped the stories. It is not a huge loss, the poems are powerful portraits by themselves. By the way, the foreword by the Canadian poet Cecily Nicholson (@_c_n_ on Twitter) alone is worth the price of the book, it is a scintillating show of pretty prose-poetry housing profound thoughts about our humanity.

 There is another reason why I celebrate and adore Bitek. She is a powerful poet in her own right, which is no mean feat, because she has had to shake herself off the shadows of her father, Okot p’Bitek one of Africa’s most important poets, most famous for Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, epic works of fiction in long-running verse. It is interesting, over five decades after the publication of those volumes, the same themes of alienation, dislocation, and belonging continue to haunt Africa as seen in Bitek’s 100 Days. Her poetry only confirms that she comes from a land of people who revere the spoken word and make it say important truths in beautiful ways. In interview after interview, the questions never fail to come out about her father, but Bitek is ever so gracious in not letting it be about her father, while educating the world about a man’s legacy she is infinitely proud of:

“My dad was not an autocrat in the house and he was not sexist. All the housework was shared fairly between our brother and sisters. He taught us how to cook some dishes that I still make occasionally. He showed us, for example, how to cook rice and beef on a single charcoal stove by placing the charcoal stove on top of the rice pot and then cooking the beef on top. He made an excellent dish of fried matooke which he cooked with lots of ghee and pepper. He was a great lover of Acholi food which we all now appreciate. My dad woke up early every day – my mother tells me he was up between four and five every morning to write. I have memories of my dad waking me up to watch the sunrise from the back verandah of our house in Kololo.”

And of course, you would not be a Ugandan poet if you did not pay homage to matooke, that meal of the gods. Matooke? Google it. That’s what Google is for. And oh, Juliane Okot Bitek is on Twitter as @jobitek. Follow her. Thank me later.

Bringing light through the Blackout writing competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Petina Gappah: Unreliable witnesses and the burden of memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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