Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Chielozona Eze’s poetry: Prayers to Survive Wars that Last

Chielozona Eze has written a book of poems that connect the wars of his childhood with the wars of his exile. He goes home to his ancestral land in Nigeria where the Nigerian civil war, his first conventional war began, and in verse he looks at his world inside out. It is a fascinating look, this little book with the enigmatic title, Prayers to Survive Wars that Last. These poems remind us that there are many types of wars, but people mostly think of conventional wars where guns are the bayonets to the heart. Similarly exile is more than a trip to Babylon, once you leave your hearth, the heart knows and grieves for the warm comfort of home, familiar surroundings tastes and smells. Well, most times. Sometimes, you just walk away, never look back, grit your teeth and bite hard into the peaches of Babylon. Life, as war goes on.

TEST_eze, chielezoneBorn in 1962, Eze was a child during the Nigerian civil war, a terrified witness to a daily hell. The war remains one of the most written about – and most unexamined of Nigeria’s traumas. That war that raged from 1967 to 1970 consumed over a million lives, mostly Igbo citizens, a genocide that destroyed lives and trust among the major ethnic groups. The timing of the release of the poetry collection is interesting, coming at a time when there is a renewed clamor for, if not an independent Biafran nation for the Igbo, a restructured Nigeria with power devolving away from the center to regions, designed perhaps along ethnic lines.

Eze’s volume of poetry has about 47 poems in it, anchored by an interesting essay- preface by the writer Chris Abani. Abani’s essay, by the way. is remarkable more for its claims and assertions than for its substance. When Abani charges, for instance, that “most Nigerian poets focus on the rallying call of protest, politics, and nation,” one senses that he has not been reading a whole lot of contemporary Nigerian poets. Indeed, it is the case that this is one area where African literature is veering away from the monotony and narrow range of poverty porn, grime and protest literature. I am thinking of young and exciting writers like Jumoke Verissimo, Saddiq M. Dzukogi, David Ishaya Osu, Romeo Oriogun, Timothy Ogene, etc, who clearly do not suffer the burden that Abani talks of. As an aside, Abani was born in 1966 on the eve of the war; his claims of being a witness to that war go beyond appropriating someone else’s pain, and comment eloquently on the class distinctions during the war that made the witnessing to fall disproportionately on the voiceless poor. This is where Eze comes in, a child who witnessed and suffered a war he did not ask for. Finally, Abani anointing Eze in this preface as “a true and worthy successor of Christopher Okigbo” is patronizing beyond the telling of it. Eze is his own voice and there are no comparisons. Eze is no Okigbo.

So, who is Chielozona Eze? Google him, and you will get impressive blurbs like this one:

“Chielozona Eze is a Nigerian poet and philosopher and literary scholar. He is associate professor of Anglophone African literatures at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. He earned his PhD in Philosophy and Literature from Purdue University, where he also obtained an MFA in fiction. He has master’s degrees in Catholic theology and comparative literature. His areas of research include Igbo poetics, African feminisms, globalization and Africana cultures/identities, literature and ethics etc. He is actively collecting and archiving Igbo oral poetry, and he seeks to continue in the tradition of his father, who was a prominent oral poet in Amokwe.”

It is true, Eze is a remarkable  scholar and quiet patron of the literary arts in Africa (who has hosted many writers on his blog), a beautiful soul burdened with the gift of deep sensitivities. A highly regarded scholar and prolific poet, Chielozona Eze was shortlisted for the £3,000 Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2013. He has published his poems in journals like the Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Eclectica, Northeast Review, and Sentinel Poetry Movement. When the history of contemporary digital African literature is written his name will be right in there along with writers like Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, Sola Osofisan, Molara Wood, etc.

About the poems, I enjoyed reading the collection, there are many poems to like in this slim volume. The first poem is Lagos, Lagos, a poem that reminds one of the homecoming of a nervous warrior – on the wings of prayers and an airplane. Visually, it calls to mind the pretty line in Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief  – of a plane which “drops gently and by degrees towards the earth as if progressing down an unseen flight of stairs.”:

Our plane broke through dense clouds
and glided over a sea of rusted roofs
                                and skyscrapers
                                        and slums
                                                    and palaces
                                                        and refuse dumps
                                                                    and people
                                                                       and people

From that first stanza, Eze, the war survivor returns to his mother’s hearth. From that poem on, the reader feasts on tender verses that plumb Eze’s angst, pain and longing for a certain peace away from the war of the past – and today’s drumbeats for war. The poem, The art of loving what is not perfect brings Eze’s mother to the reader’s consciousness – on the wings of deep words. In Memory: a parable, Eze is a tormented soul, haunted by the past and the realities of the present, a man apprehensive about a future that is right here, ugly and foreboding:

I know a thing about memory:
It is a blind dog left in a distant city,
It finds a home in a shelter, waiting for love.
Months on, chance brings its master around.
At the sound of his voice it jumps and barks
and whines and wags its tail.
Will the master reject it again?

For Eze, memory is a struggle, memory is life in ether borne on the wings of faith and spirituality. He looks at the past frozen in time, as if with the eyes of a traumatized child. It is a struggle, a painful one for which even prayer does not provide a salve. In Ezes’s memories of war, he emotes beautifully and urges us to remember history:

 The past, if forgotten pollutes
the village drinking well

Eze is his own voice but some of the poems do hearken in a good way to the industry and craft of the old masters of poetry. Unknown boy soldiers, The exodus offer hints of Kofi Awoonor and Wole Soyinka. The poems are enigmatic, giving the reader tantalizing peeks into Eze’s world view and politics. His politics is an issue: What does he now think of the Nigerian civil war? Starved girl is typical of most of the poems, seemingly accessible, simple words pregnant with meaning and feeling:

 The ground is dirt
Grasses are in spots
A white wall darkens
Two children on a wobbly table.
The one faces the camera.
The other stares at the ground.
Her ribs jut out,
her belly balls forth.
Thinning limbs, bloated feet.
Walking must be hell.

If you listen well you can hear me whisper:
Merciful God,
why are we doing this to ourselves?

The poems make the point painfully that the term, “War is hell” is more than a mere cliché. The poems are powerful enough to not require visual imagery.  Hear these lines from Remember me:

She makes it out the door.
Her thighs are stockfish.
Her stomach is a sad balloon.

prayersFaith is a constant subject in Eze’s poetry, he rarely questions it, choosing to revel in its mystery. Memory haunts Eze always. You sit in the darkness of your space and all these images of hurt and longing won’t stop drawing themselves on your conscience. It is not all war poetry; it is that and more. Letter to self from a city that survived is perhaps a defiant clap back to a generation baying for war. It is worth the steep price of the book ($15 for the hard copy, $10 for the digital copy). Ode to my refugee shirt is a nice comforting ditty evoking joy from a sad place.

The reader admires Eze’s generosity of spirit; his verses reflect on other people’s suffering and eloquently uses poetic narrative to reflect on the universality of suffering. Without uttering the word, “love”, Eze’s poems reek of love and compassion and one learns that there are beautiful people who come from a place where the words “I love you” live silently in the hearts, eyes, hands and souls of those who truly love each other.

There are many pieces to love in this slim volume, but my favorite is A new planting season (for Chinua Achebe – 1930-2013). This short moving elegy speaks volumes to the profundity of Achebe’s depths:

Before his last breath the elder showed his hands,
palm up. Empty, he said, like the long road ahead.
I’ve planted the seeds my father put in them;
planted them the way my mother taught me.

Look around you and in the old barn.
More seeds, dung, watering cans, machetes,
two sided machetes. What needed to be said
has been said. Everything else is up to you.

One imagines the poet locked up in solitary talking to himself about the personal and communal pain that won’t go away. There is a war going on, there is a war coming; Eze’s poems make his point plaintively, “I saw war, war is hell, never again.” We can only hope.

Prayers to Survive Wars that Last is available on Amazon. Eze is a veteran digital native and the enterprising reader will find some of these poems freely available online, the book is fast becoming an archival medium.  It is not a perfect book; there is a sense in which it was a disappointing production. Editorial issues mar the book, there are quite a few beautiful lines marred by editorial issues, quite unforgivable in poetry. Some of the poems read like works in progress, puzzling fillers for a little book of poems, inspiring the question: Why is this a poem? In a few instances, the pieces suffer from too many words where less or none would do just fine. And then there is the shoddy publishing of the book itself by an outfit called Cissus World Press Books (which by the way boasts the quirkiest, non-responsive website I have ever seen). My copy literally dissolved in my hands as the glue holding the pages gave way. Not to worry, I bought a digital copy online. It is a better production. Which is fine by me, the book is dying anyway. My Kindle is happy.

Chinua Achebe and contemporary African literature

“But in another sense it was entirely appropriate to call Achebe a contemporary African writer, since African novel-writing has scarcely progressed since he inaugurated it with the celebrated Things Fall Apart. In the decades since that title was published—the same year as The Once and Future King, Our Man in Havana, and The Dharma Bums—the American novel has evolved through a multitude of vogues and phases while the Anglophone African novel has, for the most part, remained as it was when Achebe launched it: unremarkable in its prose, flat in its characterization, anti-Western in its politics, and preoccupied with the confrontation between tradition and modernity.”

– Helen Andrews (nee Rittelmeyer) in her essay Up from Colonialism, in the Claremont Review of Books, February 10, 2014

Perhaps, if I had to share my number one frustration about African literature, it is that its trajectory and fate are over-determined by the West. The conclusions get firmer even as the purveyors get lazier. Talking about labels, here is a New York Times interview of Teju Cole on the re-release of his debut book Every Day is for the Thief in which he  tries to clarify his identity as a writer, and I guess, a human being. Specifically, Teju Cole demurs when referred to as an “African writer”, preferring the label, “internationalist” a la Salman Rushdie, whatever that means. I agree with him and respect his choice of identity. I am not sure the West cares; they are bent on making him and all writers of African descent, the exotic other. Because even though African writers protest too much, many of them have spent a lifetime making money and fame from hawking themselves as “the other.”

achebeLet me also say that “African literature” in the 21st century, to the extent that it is only judged through analog books by literary “critics” schooled in the 20th century Achebean era, will always distort our history and stories. I have said that many African writers write poor fiction because they tend to force their anxieties about social conditions into the format of fiction. The result is often awkward, they should be writing essays. But I was primarily thinking about books. Today, the vast proportion of our stories is being written on the Internet by young folks who do not have the resources that the West availed Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o et al in the 60’s. Why are we judging African literature only through books? Why?

There may be some truth to the notion that many African writers who write fiction are yet to wean themselves of Achebe’s influence. But then, the critics who make these charges should look in the mirror – and then get off their lazy butts and go read new African writers. They are out there on the Internet and in literary magazines doing us proud. And how you can do a literary critique of contemporary African writing without once mentioning Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie beats me. What about Taiye Selasi? NoViolet Bulawayo? And we are still talking about books. Give me a break, people.

ngugiLastly, to imply that Achebe was an ordinary writer is beneath contempt. Literature, stories must not be divorced from their context. Achebe’s generation wrote for my generation of children because no one else would. I would not be here today without them. They were preoccupied with the social conditions at the time, yes, but they tried to do something about them also. Indeed some died fighting for an ideal (Christopher Okigbo for instance). The challenge for today’s writers is to ensure that they are not merely recording and sometimes distorting and exaggerating Africa’s anxieties and dysfunctions for fame and fortune. To blame Achebe for our contemporary writers’ narcissism is disingenuous and silly.

soyinka

 

Thoughts on reactions to my essay on Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83

Since publication of my essay on Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s book, Tram 83 (here), I have read some interesting feedback, most recently from Richard Oduor Oduku and Zukiswa Wanner . I thank them for engaging me respectfully, and found many of the numerous comments on their wall enlightening, entertaining even. A few thoughts:

1. My essay isn’t so much about Tram 83, but about the politics and power of narrative and how we conduct business. It’s an old debate!🚶🏿Sounds harsh, but after reading Tram 83, I wonder if the narrative that passes for “African literature” in the West helps or hurts “Africa.”

2. Many African writers of stature have attained fame and decent living from attaching themselves to the title “African writer.” Prizes, grants, fellowships, conferences are devoted to “African writing” and these things are heavily subscribed to by the same African writers who now chafe at the term. You can’t have it both ways. If you have allowed yourself to be defined (and limited) by a term, the reader should be forgiven for looking at you through that lens. You can’t be posing as a Western-sponsored African writer, and when asked questions you drop the tag, “African.” As I have said repeatedly in the past, the perks aren’t free! 😐

3. The reader as a consumer has every right to be prescriptive in terms of what he/she wants. You don’t have to cater to the consumer, it’s all right, this consumer can always go elsewhere, there is plenty supply out there, most of the good stuff is actually free. It works both ways; the writer should never feel any obligation to satisfy any readership. There are tons of readers out there, find your audience.

4. There is no true fiction; our people say that it is what is in your heart when you are sober that comes out of your mouth when you are drunk! Let it not be said that African fiction as we know it today is the last refuge of scoundrels and cowards. If you come to my home and my ancestral land and you insult me, my loved ones and everything that I stand for in the name of fiction, I have every right to do the same to you in the name of fiction.

5. If it looks like I am harping on and on about the same things, it is because to be quite honest, much of orthodox African fiction as we see in books is prescriptive (yes, that word) mostly timid, lacking innovation, its creativity stifled by the work of Western editors and gatekeepers whose first allegiance is to a paying reading [Western] audience. African readership is hardly part of the equation. What is the purpose of the writing anyway? It does not educate, it does not entertain, it does not improve upon the silence. What are you doing?

6. What gets lost in translation is important. The unintended consequence might come across as utter disrespect. Remember, the act of telling our stories in English, and then on paper, is in itself two levels of translation. We are built in the oral tradition. Moving from French to English is this at least three layers of translation. A lot gets lost in translation. When the narrator in Tram 83 seems to mock a people whose cuisine is “dog cutlets and grilled rat” it is impossible to see them as human beings worth engaging in on a respectful level. It is your language, you already have power over the narrative, if I told you that your foie gras is obtained from doing savage things to the liver of a cute bird (the lovely goose) I am communicating to you that I don’t take you seriously. You are savages. Where I come from we don’t eat sautéed termites, we eat irikhun. If you do not understand why this is so offensive to the reader, then we are on different planets.

7. Again, the translation in Tram 83 did nothing for me, with all due respect. I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in English, it was as if I was speaking Igbo, I read Camara Laye’s African Child in English and it was as if he was reading to me in his language. Do the people really eat “grilled rat”? Is that what they see on their plates?

8. Another point that I need to bring home: We may be mistaking Diaspora [African] writing for African writing. In the 21st century, in the age of social media, who are these voices? And yes, they are considered “African” voices. If you don’t agree with me, you are disagreeing with Alain Mabanckou and Ato Quayson, read their words. You are the ones setting people up for what they are not.

9. Excuse me if I am not impressed: At least in the case of Nigeria, the most benign of African writers engage in navel gazing and satisfying middle class pursuits of Western readers and merely document Africa’s social issues to line their pockets. The rest are in cahoots with ruler-thieves.

10. And please don’t tell me that activism is not their responsibility; they are in the West, happily attending protest marches against dictators like Trump, as they should, and driving debates on racism, gender identity, etc, etc.

11. I think you all should read Amatesiro Dore’s essay; it focuses on the binary of Diaspora v indigenous writer, who gets to be acknowledged and what this all means. http://www.thescoopng.com/2015/01/28/amatesiro-ede-nigeria-produced-writer-worth-reading-since-1960/

12. For me as a reader, this is all academic, I could tell you that we need new writing; we don’t, I am on the Internet and on social media, enjoying the best narrative coming out of Africa in decades. There is little translation and most of the writers are readers who don’t know that they are writers, lol.

13. In the 21st century, it is inappropriate to judge the work of a writer based solely on their published works. It especially does young African writers a disservice, the vast bulk of their work is digital. These books that you all crow over are important but they are like less than 0.1 percent of their output. Why do you insist on judging them by books alone? I won’t, I don’t have to.

14. Ultimately, Mujila’s narrator in Tram 83 may be right: “There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.

15. Dear African writer in the Diaspora, what is your mission? Africa is a basket case. We know that! In the 21st century, does the reader really need a book of fiction to see that much of Africa is a basket case? We know that! It is all over YouTube! We do not need you telling us ad nauseam, we certainly do not need you exaggerating Africa’s already dire condition for the West’s reading pleasure.

16. The charge that I am a “critic” is one I am too lazy to disown. I am a reader who writes. I buy most of my books with my own money, I am not affiliated with anyone and I say what I have to say in my own space. What you do with it is your own wahala. I have written creative non-fiction and published them in reputable journals and as part of books, so this is not about me. I am not necessarily reviewing books, I am using the books that I read to continue a long-running dialogue about us and how we allow others to see us. It is complicated, I guess. Bottom line: The writer should simply write and the reader should simply read. Everything else is drama. LOL!

Molon Labe. I have said my own. Oya come and beat me! 😎

My father’s cupboard

My father had a cupboard of books. It was probably our most prized possession, even as he was “transferred” by the Nigerian police from Nigeria’s nook to cranny, he and I always made sure that the cupboard of books had an exalted place in the “transfer” lorry that took us to our new home in the barracks. 
In that cupboard, Professor Chinua Achebe’s books were exalted guests. I traveled the world through the books in that cupboard. My father’s cupboard was magical, no matter how many times I visited it, there was always a book I had never read. In Ruskin Bond’s Room on the Roof, I traveled to India, in Richmal Crompton’s Williams series, I saw little boys that looked like me in far away Britain.
 About my father, I am not sure my dad ever read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I know he read No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People. In those days, we had one of those standing mirrors that were in every Nigerian “parlour.” My father, who had secretly dreamt of going “overseas” to get “the golden fleece”, would stand before the mirror, twirl his Honda motorcycle keys around his fingers and go, “How’s the car behaving?” a way of greeting by the new African elites in Achebe’s book, No Longer at Ease, those mimic-white folks who came back home in those huge ships. My dad envied them, no end and he never tired of telling me that he would have been one of them if I had not come along. 

My dad loved A Man of the People and on some evenings over a glass of beer, he would yell, ‘Chief Nanga, MP!” and he and I would practically fall on the ground laughing at the antics of that corrupt politician. There were other books that my father loved, I remember pretty much all the books of the African Writers Series that Achebe helped to birth. My father loved TM Aluko’s books, especially One Man One Wife, a book my dad liked to quote loudly within earshot of our mother. He chafed at monogamy and he endured it, with a few missteps. His pet name for our mother Izuma was Ailegwale, that is, the only course, no appetizer, no dessert! 
I will always remember Achebe because his books were one reason I bonded with my dad, a complex but loving man. I inherited my dad’s passions, a lot of them demons, his love for beautiful people, good music, words, a good bottle, and books. Achebe saved my dad and me with the power of words. He was a giant, powerful eagle perched at the head of a pack of thinkers and doers who insisted on telling us our stories, at a time when that was what you had to do to entertain children and their parents. I lost a father in Achebe, this man who made my father play with me.

Dear African writer in the Diaspora: What is your mission?

Dear African writer in the Diaspora, what is your mission? Africa is a basket case. We know that! In the 21st century, does the reader really need a book of fiction to see that much of Africa is a basket case? We know that! It is all over YouTube! We do not need you telling us ad nauseam, we certainly do not need you exaggerating Africa’s already dire condition for the West’s reading pleasure. Yes, it is only the West that reads you. These books are for the benefit of the West, those that read in Africa do not have access to much of these books. What is your mission?
What is the purpose of literature anyway? How is it that there is a narrowness of range and depth in the literature that we read of in your books? Is this really the sum of our experience? I speak for myself as a reader, I do not need happy stories, no, I need narrative that is not contrived by Diaspora writers who hardly go home to visit. The reader knows. 

There is also this thing called credibility; when your books are “launched” by criminal leaders, when your “conferences” are sponsored by thug leaders, when your imaginary associations are funded from government funds inserted into the budget in the dead of night, when criminal rulers spend one million American dollars for your two-hour dinners, when you are the hand behind the twitter handle of common ruler-thieves you can’t come to me and read me a book of deprivation and injustice and not expect me to laugh in your face. 

How many of you “writers” have lifted a voice to complain about the massacres in Nigeria, the looting, even Chibok? How many of you have asked where Dr. Stella Nyanzi is? That vile dictator Museveni has locked up Dr. Nyanzi because she accused his wife of having two buttocks! What are you doing? You are writing cute things for the white man, giving his children awesome lectures when you are not protesting Trump or racism in the West. Nonsense! 

Abeg, continue to write your lived experience o, na who hold you? We are simply saying we don’t want to read it. We are not saying we are happy, we are simply saying we are not happy with your bullshit, LOL! Want to know why Linda Ikeji and BBN are more influential than Adichie? It is called a failure of leadership… y’all be writing poverty porn o, which one concern me?

Many times, fiction is the last refuge of the coward. What the hell is art? I say to you, if someone comes to your home, slaps you, calls your lover ugly and defecates on your floor and say it is art, slap him, call his lover ugly and go defecate on his floor and call it art also. Joyce Cary, Joseph Conrad, VS Naipaul, these writers told you, your people have no civilization, there are no thinkers where you come from and you are all sub humans and in school you were told this is art, this is fiction, and you took exams where you had to answer yes to the question: “Are Africans sub-human?” If you said, “No, we are human beings”, you failed. Now, the offspring of Africa are back in the garb of racists and jerks telling you the same thing about your women, about your humanity, about your civilization, and because you have no self-esteem, you are calling those who define and defile you artists. Clap for yourselves.

Who are these people anyway? They are the children of looters who built those disused Concorde runways rotting in the jungles of the beautiful Congo, they are the children of those who looted Africa dry and built libraries as monuments to their perfidy. Their children are back from learning French and Spanish and in fake accents they are calling the abused names that should be reserved for their own parents. I say, sell your silly little books to the West, we don’t want them. 

And I say to you, words are powerful, if you do not listen closely to the politics of your storyteller you will be a slave. I have said my own. You are all full of it. Your books are worthless. I have said it, Oya comman beat me!🏃🏿 
#FreeStellaNyanzi

Nigeria: The way we are

There is a reason why many people like me have lost interest in commenting on Nigerian politics. What seems abnormal to me is really the new normal. Nigeria is what it is and there is this sense that I am crying louder than the bereaved. Our dysfunction is now deeply dyed into our cultural fabric. People have basically decoupled themselves from nationhood and community and are now looking out for themselves. It is so blatant. When I speak with people at home, no matter how you steer them into politics, they don’t seem interested. They seem focused on the self – by all means necessary. They just want to “hammer.” It is what it is. 
Why are we like this? Why are things the way they are? There is really no shame, no sense of self-reflection, words trump deeds and style is the all important victor over substance. There is no leadership, to be honest, and I am not just talking about political leadership. We are all the same in the communal hypocrisy and greed. I think about how public intellectuals are struggling to normalize, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, SLS, the Emir of Kano, Mr. Glib, Mr. Do what I say, a note what I do, and I remember, they normalized Buhari, they normalized Amaechi, they normalized El-Rufai, they normalized Obasanjo. Their job as intellectuals is to make you forget. #AnimalFarm. If you are a thief and a thug and you are generous to them, you can murder hundreds, you can steal billions, you can be incompetent and you will be fine. You will not be a distressed character in their insincere books and essays. 
You must not separate the messenger from the message; when you do you decouple them from their sins. These people have ruined our country. How can we soon forget SLS’s misdeeds? No, he is a charming soul, he says all the right things, and if he likes you, he will be your Robin Hood. He loves public intellectuals. This is my larger point: There is no hope for Nigeria. I do not see any progress through my generation or the generation coming after. Indeed the generation coming after promises to be much worse judging by their antics on social media. They are training you to be unthinking dolts. Do not ask questions, they say, this is church!

There is no hope. If you doubt me, do a survey of where our leaders and their families go to for education, health, vacations, good living. Not in Nigeria. Buhari’s dying veins are hooked to the laboratory machines of the secret agencies of the West. Imagine that, after billions of Naira budgeted for a medical clinic our president had to go abroad to the West to attend to his health. The CIA knows everything about his blood cells. We don’t. Go figure. Nigeria is not a country. 

For what will happen to much of Africa, look to where your leaders are. At some point we will have to tell ourselves the truth. Let’s all agree with our bumbling, thieving rulers and their intellectual enablers: We cannot govern ourselves. Today, we are in denial about that truth. We will admit this soon and outsource governance to WalMart and McDonalds. They will save our people just as the cell phone saved my mother from my father’s patriarchy and Nigeria’s incompetence. Walmart will sell us Do-It-Yourself governance kits. If you don’t have credit, you die… 

Okey Ndibe’s America: Joyous tales, mistaken identities, crumbling walls and new worlds

Swaddled in the warm folds of this hotel room in Denver, Colorado, battling sleep, I am comforted by the one remaining unread essay in Okey Ndibe’s lovely collection of essay-memoirs, Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American. The flight to Denver from home was four hours; a lovely nap, an adorable Mennonite couple and the book were my companions. Ndibe’s book entertained me in the impatiently long spaces between me asking the couple totally ignorant questions about their lives. I mistook them for the Amish I had seen on television and in our local Dutch market, I gushed over them like Donald Trump meeting Ben Carson for the first time and I told them how much I love the Amish and I go to their markets to buy the best barbecued chicken and crunchy corn nuts, and wondered if they now ride cars, etc.. Lovely couple, they endured my cultural incompetence with uncommon dignity and stoicism.

So, what do I think of Ndibe’s book? Let me put it out there: Never Look an American in the Eye is a lovely book. With this book, Ndibe speaks for that generation of warriors who left their ancestral lands decades ago when the GPS was not yet a commercial retail concept. I am part of that generation, I half-joke that when we left, the airplanes had no GPS; you got in and hoped you landed in America, not Ghana. As an aside, in a real sense, this is not a book review; Never Look an American in the Eye is not a book you read for the purpose of expressing a literary opinion, it is a book you read and thoroughly enjoy. The pleasure you derive from reading it reminds you of those days when books really entertained the reader and you didn’t have to overthink stuff. I am thinking of the books of Ndibe’s generation (and mine), of Heinemann’s African Writer’s Series, and numerous other books that opened huge windows into other worlds beyond our own worlds. You should read this book, Ndibe is genetically wired to be a genuinely generous spirit, this man-child warrior who has seen quite a lot and has survived to tell some of his stories in triumph. As you read, you are taken by how Ndibe manages to make you laugh as he laughs with his America and the numerous detractors he comes across. And you fall in love with his spirit. Hard.

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In Never Look an American in the Eye, Ndibe deploys an interesting and ultimately important way of writing about exile. With perhaps the exception of the late great Nnamdi Azikiwe and his autobiography My Odyssey, most African writers of Ndibe’s generation and before have been famously reticent about sharing intimate details about their stays abroad – and for good reason. Home was never far away from their minds and it just seemed that all their lives were anchored around that ultimate return home to Africa. They rarely stopped to smell the earth or marvel at the majesty of Babylon’s mountains and rivers. Exile was harsh and sometimes racism was the least of the issues these writers faced. As if racism wasn’t harrowing enough. They rarely talked about their stay in Babylon, except perhaps in biting songs of sorrow. There was John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo’s bitter angst in his book, America Their America. Wole Soyinka provided a peep into the chilly hell that was his England in that classic poem, The Telephone Conversation, and Chinua Achebe died without offering much that was intimate and personal in terms of his long stay abroad. Generations after continued in that tradition, wrapping moody book covers around serious social anxieties. The biting hilarity of Ike Oguine’s The Squatter’s Tale did not hide his rage about the America of his protagonist’s nightmares. Let me put it this way: This is the first book I have read that seriously interrogates the personal lives of Nigerian writers and thinkers as they toiled abroad as part of the working middle class. America is not all about the indignities of race, poverty and the grim romance of sleeping on heating grates in winter. It is a revealing and precious portrait about life abroad and Ndibe puts it together rather nicely.

Ndibe takes a different approach to speaking to America, the country that adopted him. This is not yet another series of supercilious lectures written with the aid of grants and cheap red wine, all supplied by adoring white folks, happy to listen to yet another whiny and weepy African writer spinning tales of privilege and entitlement. No, with courage and gentle humor, Ndibe looks at America squarely in the eye and provides her awesome feedback. Ndibe is not an ungrateful guest, but he does have a few hard truths to share. He does this politely, firmly, and with humor and uncommon intelligence. In seventeen awesome essays, Ndibe connects all the rivers that run through him and connect him to us and the world. Ndibe is a master writer and storyteller, no ifs, no buts about it. Ndibe’s power of description is all muscle. Read and laugh through the powerful anecdotes of cultural clashes that breed misunderstanding. His journey from Nigeria began in 1988 when he was recruited by the late great Chinua Achebe to go to the United States to be the editor of the now defunct African Commentary magazine. That trip set off an incredible journey of identity and ever-changing relationships that is familiar to anyone that traveled around that time and lived in the US during the 80’s and 90’s. And what a journey. In seventeen awesome essays, we learn a lot about Ndibe, Nigeria, America and everything else in between. There is identity, and there are relationships. And there is longing. Ndibe wraps everything up very nicely, and for once in a long time, the book is the perfect medium for the narratives. This is because Ndibe tells them simply and with spare carefully crafted prose. It is a series of stories that he tells Americans, and he welcomes anyone else who wants to listen, to listen, just listen. There are no gimmicks here, absolutely nothing contrived. Which is fine with this reader; sometimes a reader just wants to laugh. And Ndibe made me laugh, deep in Denver. And comforted me. Now, that takes a lot of work.

In Never Look an American in the Eye, Ndibe holds the reader spell-bound as narrates his struggles to earn a foothold in America while holding on to a fast receding past in Nigeria. As you read about his relationships with Babs Fafunwa (his late great father in-law), Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Bart Nnaji, Chudi Uwazurike, and other academics and intellectuals who helped shape his path abroad, you are in awe as you realize that you are holding an important part of history between your eyes. If that doesn’t make you fall in love with Ndibe the raconteur, read about how he met his wife, Sheri, and your heart beams with fondness. This is not just another book about race, certainly not about that dated race paradigm that is the black-white binary that you find in books written by African authors writing about exile; no, this is just about the life and living through the absurdities of it all while enjoying yourself. And this Ndibe does with sentences that curl you up in smiles

My first night in the United States brought little respite. I had endured eleven hours aboard a Nigeria Airways flight, confined in a tight seat, wedged uncomfortably between two other passengers, one a middle-aged man with a beer belly who snored as a gorilla might, the other a young woman who stayed awake for most of the trip, a curious sneer fixed on her face, as if she were at war with the world in general for subjecting her to the plight of flying economy. (p. 47)

Ndibe perfectly captures the awe and sense of wonder that his generation of travelers (mine) felt upon landing Western shores, and the haunting sense of alienation from home. It was tough without the new mirrors called the Internet, social media and smartphones. Ndibe wrote these stories for our generation so that perhaps our children may judge us with real data – and hopefully compassion. Ndibe’s stories are told daily in many homes in Babylon, and our children endure their telling and re-telling. Sometimes, as in the writer Tope Folarin’s tender and evocative musings (in the essay, The summer of ice cream), we are confronted with their effect on our children:

Occasionally on the road Dad would tell us stories about Nigeria. He made the place sound like a wonderful party that was always happening. He told us stories about each of his brothers—he has dozens, my grandfather married six women—and he wistfully spoke of the time he’d spent traveling from city to city as a semi-professional soccer player. He also told us stories about the mistakes he’d made as a younger man: the women he’d chased just because he could, the jobs he hadn’t taken seriously enough. Each story he told ended abruptly, or at least it seemed so to me. I was always waiting to hear about the day his apartment had been stormed by corrupt policemen, the time he’d been incarcerated for something he hadn’t done. I was waiting to hear that he was a refugee—back then I thought this was the only legitimate reason for leaving a place you called home. I knew nothing about ambition then, how it wakes you up and won’t let you sleep at night, how it’ll fling you across an ocean or three if you let it. I would learn soon enough.

In Never Look an American in the Eye, Ndibe stitches together a sweeping panorama of a life lived, and of a dying era, gentrified by technology and the sheer passage of time. We remember the radio, the first television, of grainy images of America’s stereotypes galloping into our consciousness through grainy images of the Cartwright brothers and Country music. From the wars of Burma and Biafra to the Cold War, Ndibe expertly connects the dots of relationships and it is lovely to read. And yes, it is lovely and sad to read of an era when books were truly wondrous things to Nigerian children, when children actually wept when as punishment for an infraction, they were denied a book. 

Armed with carefully crafted, exquisite prose, Ndibe tells a compelling set of stories, however, in all of this, what distinguishes Ndibe from many of the writers before him is his generosity of spirit and the relentless dignity with which he shares his stories of endurance, and triumph over challenges in Babylon. Please read the essay, Fitting the description, a rollicking tale about racial profiling and mistaken identity. As soon as Ndibe arrives in America, he is suspected of armed robbery in a case of mistaken identity, but in the telling of it, this gripping narrative derives its power from how Ndibe humanizes those who mistook him for a bank robber. Throughout the book, he empathizes with – and humanizes the visionaries like Achebe and Nnaji who soon had trouble keeping afloat the magazine, African Commentary – and ensuring his livelihood in America. Even as he terrorizes the reader with the pain and urgency of his predicament, he is still laughing all through it. If you simply want to laugh, if you simply want to marvel at good writing, good storytelling, white rice and goat meat stew, comfort food in your winter, this is a book you must read. Ndibe hardly overthinks issues here, he just writes and lets the reader do the overthinking. Ndibe is a powerful storyteller. But I already told you that.

The essays are a rich harvest for those who choose to reflect on how, where and why the rain beat Africans. It is hard to choose a favorite but I enjoyed English Dreams, Communist Fantasies, and American Wrestling immensely. When Ndibe says:

If the British colonial administrators, merchants, and missionaries were to have any form of communication with the native, then the two sides needed the figure of the interpreter, a veritable bridge. Interpreters played an undeniable, essential role. But they were also often characterized in a harsh light. They were deemed to occupy a position of moral dubiety and cultural ambiguity, committed neither to their English masters nor their Igbo brethren but entirely to an illicit desire for lucre. They were sometimes distrusted by the British but prized for the communication they enabled; often feared and despised by their fellow Igbo but nevertheless courted. The Igbo sometimes described an interpreter as that man who could go into the white man’s mouth and pluck words from it. (pp. 4-5)

It is hard not to reflect on how in the 21st century, precious little has changed, how much of black Africa reels still under black-on-black oppression. Are today’s Nigerian intellectuals and writers not the new interpreters, stuffing their mouths with loot even as they say all the right things? The more things change, the more things stay the same.

It is a rich book and many readers will find plenty to agree with and to quibble over. In the absence of context, some of the banter would perhaps make interesting debate material on my Facebook wall. Hear Ndibe seeming to throw red meat at the warriors of feminism, in the essay, Nigerian, Going Dutch:

Let me insert a note of cultural information. In Nigeria, when somebody invites another—or even others—to a meal, it is understood that the inviter will pick up the tab. However, it is unusual for a Nigerian woman to treat a man to a meal in a restaurant. For that matter, it is not common practice for a Nigerian woman to buy a man much of anything. (pp. 62-63)

You must read the essay, A dying father, Dreams of Burma and England. Moving was the narrative about the bond of friendship between his father Christopher Chidebe Ndibe and the English man John Tucker a lieutenant in the British army in Burma when Ndibe’s father was a noncommissioned officer with the rank of lance corporal. By the way, if you are Facebook friends with Ndibe (you should be, he is a treasure trove of living literature) you would be familiar with his running commentary on this beautiful friendship, including this November 2014 post containing pictures of him and John Tucker’s son imitating an earlier photo pose of their fathers.

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In Never Look an American in the Eye, the essay that bears the title of the book, delightful turns of phrase, and impish sentences take you where you least expect. Here is one of the many hilarious descriptions of his impression upon discovering winter and America’s chill:

Years ago, when I was still in secondary school, American movies would be shown once every few months in one pastoral town or another. Wherever they came, the townsfolk—men, women, and youngsters—would gather in an open space, often a soccer field, for a night at the movies. To this day, I have never fathomed—nor have I found anybody who knows—the source of the movies. Perhaps it was the brainchild of the Central Intelligence Agency. It was in the heyday of the Cold War. What better way for the CIA to impress the heck out of us—to win the undecided hearts of Nigerians—than to show us images of the confident, swaggering, swashbuckling American. (pp. 34-35)

The essay English dreams, communist fantasies, and American wrestling is a powerful treatise on the cold war, the struggle for the countries of Africa by the superpowers, all through the eyes of a precocious boy. One realizes sadly how the structures of the time were designed to achieve a singular aim: Indoctrination.

In my secondary-school days, a kind of chewing gum was in vogue. Each pack of gum came with a small card that bore the name of an American actor. You unwrapped the gum and saw a card with the name and photo of, say, Lorne Greene or Dan Blocker. One day, I unveiled a card with the photo and name of Tony Curtis. I believe he had two guns. My parents had named me Anthony, after Saint Anthony of Padua. The moment I saw the card, I renamed myself Tony Curtis. It became my reigning name throughout my secondary-school years and gave me a newfound swagger that went with a wild, awakening interest in girls. A part of me adored the country that had sent me this new, heady, gun-flaunting name. There was a strange music to it, the same way other “American” names had captivated me and many other youngsters of my generation. Many of my secondary-school mates adopted North American names, won over by their unusual sound. One friend took Alabama, another Manitoba, yet another Lorne Greene. There was an Adam Faith and an Arizona. I was thrilled by the sound of Tennessee and Mississippi; I couldn’t wait to visit them. (pp. 13-14)

Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books, like Achebe’s books, Ndibe’s books will find their ways into the classrooms of the West, where impressionable young people will be schooled in the ways of the world according to writers of Nigerian extraction. The irony? Nigerian children need these books more than Westerners, but they live in a world that cannot afford the voices of her writers, because there are no robust structures for sustaining reading and learning. Worse, there are voices inside Nigeria, but no one hears them. Those the world calls Nigerian writers mostly live abroad and produce what arguably diaspora writing. The writer Amatosire Dore who writes from Nigeria argues angrily that Nigeria has not produced any indigenous writer worth reading. It is a debate worth having:

“The class of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are British created minds. Achebe produced works in Nigeria as a paid employee of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation with a house in Ikoyi. Soyinka received pre-independence government education and his works were produced by the British pounds. Buchi Emecheta couldn’t have produced a single line of literature, in Nigeria, with five children and a missing husband. We killed Christopher Okigbo during the Civil War and successive military regimes got rid of the rest by firing squad, poverty, fake drugs, bad roads or self-imposed exile. They sentenced Soyinka to solitary confinement and crippled Achebe’s legs. Chimamanda Adichie went abroad before they could get her at Nsukka. But her generation of Nigerian writers-in-diaspora have been coming and going for several seasons like a gang of abikus. Our book pirates are sucking them dry and Nigerian publishers can’t afford to publish Ghana Must Go, Open City and other books by the class of Adichie.”

“When goats decide to write their stories and actually do so, they become writers. If Nigeria provides the facilities for a goat to write and publish stories, the goat becomes a “Nigerian Writer”. There are no “Nigerian Writers” worth reading. Read an average Nigerian newspaper, watch a typical Nollywood film, or buy a Made-in-Nigeria book that wasn’t first published in Europe or America and you’ll find “Nigerian Writers”. Ben Okri, Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole, Helon Habila, Sefi Atta, Chris Abani, Segun Afolabi, Chika Unigwe and other global names are not “Nigerian Writers”. They are just cultural refugees with Nigerian passports who are pampered and sustained by America and Europe. Can a country without libraries and the conditions to sustain life produce writers? If pottery was haram, would Northern Nigeria have produced Ladi Kwali? If bronze works were forbidden, will the ancient Bini Kingdom produce art?

Most of the stories in this collection happened from the late eighties to the late nineties. In sharing these stories of life in America, Ndibe acknowledges that the times are changing and in 21st century America, many old prejudices are now stale, replaced by new ones, thanks to advances in technology that have opened up the world and brought down old walls. However, in a subversive way, this collection of essays is incredibly important in charting the ongoing narrative that is called African literature since it subtly and expertly captures an era that would be alien to many in the young generation. I admire the way Ndibe uses the brilliance of his humor and intellect to tell complex stories simply and in a way that engages. Yemisi Aribisala uses a different technique to chart similar journeys, in her book of essays, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex Nigerian Tastebuds, where she uses food as a literary substrate to capture narratives that overlap generational eras. As I shared earlier, Folarin’s essays on America provide fascinating and insightful perspectives on his immigrant father who happens to be of Ndibe’s and my generation. It would be just awesome to have these three writers on a digital platform talking about all of this and more.

Never Look an American in the Eye is an eminently readable book; Ndibe deploys one of my pet peeves to sustain his audience beyond Nigeria; he goes “universal” in helpfully explaining some indigenous Nigerian terms to the (Western) uninitiated. Akamu is a “hot porridge made from ground fermented corn”, and rice and beans becomes “a spicy black-eyed pea porridge, and white rice.” The “flying turtle” in the title is actually a Westernized version of the tortoise a lengendary character in Nigerian folklore that appears in the essay in the book, An African folktale, A Wall Street lesson, perhaps a way of making Americans connect with the tortoise and the book,. I think Ndibe should have looked his Western editors in the eye and insisted on “flying tortoise.” Techniques like this are sure to extend the debate on how far African writers should go in translating for the benefit of the other, and the pitfalls of cultural appropriation. It is a debate spurred by Chigozie Obioma reacting to feedback by African readers to his book, The Fishermen, who felt he had bent over backwards to make his book accessible to Western readers.  The writer, Socrates Mbamalu in response recently issued a robust defense of the notion of “provincialism” in writing. I agree:

Contrary to Chigozie’s statement, where he says those writers concerned with provincialism are concerned with pleasing a particular base of readers, one can equally say that those concerned with explaining local words are similarly concerned with pandering to the West and pleasing the readers from the West, otherwise why would one explain eba as a ‘yellow globular mashed potato clone made from cassava chippings’? If I used ugali instead of eba in a sentence, would it change anything? Unless, according to Chigozie, I am trying to convey a vivid sense of something. Maybe just curiosity as to what ugali is, and how ugali is different from eba, say in preparation and content. What then does the reader gain or lose in a story in being told eba is a ‘globular mashed potato clone’ if the eba itself doesn’t serve any other purpose in the story other than it being just food.

Finally,  the world outside of Nigeria will judge Okey Ndibe mostly by his books (Foreign Gods, Inc., Arrows of Rain, Writers, Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa, not by his prodigious output in Nigerian newspapers and online as an essayist and regular commentator on Nigerian politics and African literature.  As an aside, you should read his essay, My Biafran Eyes, an autobiographical piece on the Nigerian civil war. It is one of the most important works on that unfortunate war.  Ndibe is a mentor to many African writers, one of an army of a few older writers between Soyinka and Achebes’s generation, and the current generation of young writers, who have successfully bridged analog and digital writing, with grace and vision. Indeed, it is the case that he has suffered indignities and harassment in the hands of state security officials at the Nigerian borders on account of his political views and advocacy. Ndibe is a renaissance man worth celebrating beyond his books.

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By the way, whatever happened to those audio recordings of Achebe? They would be worth a pretty mint today. What am I babbling about, you ask? You would have to buy the book. And read the essay, English dreams, communist fantasies, and American wrestling. Thank me later.

Mujila Fiston Mwanza’s Tram 83: Requiem for the African writer, and again, the balance of today’s stories

There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.

– Mujila, Fiston Mwanza. Tram 83 (p. 96). Deep Vellum Publishing.

The literary acclaim that Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s 2015 debut book (translated from French to English by Roland Glasser) has garnered world-wide is a new writer’s dream. The reviews are uniform in their praise. The UK Guardian crows with awe, “Acclaimed newcomer Fiston Mwanza Mujila has dazzled the literary world with his debut novel, a riotous look at the underbelly of life rarely featured in sub-Saharan African literature.” It is perhaps one of the most highly decorated and acclaimed first novels in the history of “African literature”; it was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize (2016) and won the 2016 Etisalat Prize for literature,, among other notable awards. It proves that there remains a huge reading and paying market for African literature in English in the West. It is also instructive how the world still views Africa, especially through the eyes of Diaspora “African writers”, those who deign or have been anointed, to speak for Africa.

What is Tram 83 about? After reading it, I really don’t know, to be honest with you, it is innocent of a coherent plot. This is how the book’s blurb describes the experience of reading it:

In an unnamed African city in secession, profit-seekers of all languages and nationalities mix. They have only one desire: to make a fortune by exploiting the mineral wealth of the land. Two friends — Lucien, a writer with literary ambitions, home from abroad, and his childhood friend Requiem, who dreams of taking over the seedy underworld of their hometown — gather in the most notorious nightclub in town: the Tram 83. Around them gravitate gangsters and young girls, soldiers and stowaways, profit-seeking tourists and federal agents of a nonexistent State.

Tram 83 plunges the reader into a modern African gold rush as cynical as it is comic and colourfully exotic. A daring feat of narrative imagination and linguistic creativity, Tram 83 uses the rhythms of jazz to weave a tale of human relationships in a world that has become a global village.

The “unnamed African city” is probably a fictionalized Lubumbashi in the troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Mujila, who now lives in Austria, hails from. Mujila (who is interviewed here by Roland Glasser, the book’s translator) is the darling of some of the most respected authorities in contemporary African literature. The book’s blurbs, almost all written by Western notables, throb with high praise. The praise is breathless and almost patronizing as if the world is surprised that this black man can string pretty sentences together. Not to  be outdone, the Ghanaian scholar Ato Quayson, Chair of the Etisalat Prize panel that awarded Mujila the prize, who lives in Toronto, Canada, writing in BrittlePaper, had great things to say about Tram 83 and shared that the panel “recognized the book for its great humour, its experimental narrative style, its adroit characterization, and for the subtlety of its reflections on the state of African politics today.” It is consistent with the foreword by the acclaimed US-based Congolese scholar, Professor Alain Mabanckou, who crowed thus:

Tram 83 is written with the kind of magic one finds in only the best of storytellers, an astute observer of everyday life and a genuine philosopher. His words bring to life the city of Lubumbashi, filled with a cast of characters, writers, drunkards, drug dealers, dreamers, lost souls, all living side by side in the popular neighborhoods in which all of life’s pleasures are traded. And then there’s also the “trashy side” of life, the drugs and the vodka, a glimpse at the underbelly of life that is so rarely featured in sub-Saharan African literature, a world far from the images on the postcards sold to tourists. Fiston’s novel has lifted the veil Africa has been compelled to wear over the years, and she now stands naked before us. His voice is original, a genuine breath of fresh air, and we will surely be following this exciting new voice in the years to come. I can hardly believe Tram 83 is a first novel … So much creativity, linguistic innovation, and such a pleasure to read!”

Clearly, either Mabanckou and I read two different novels with the same title, or he has not been reading a lot of contemporary African literature lately, so the notion that Tram 83 charts new territory in its depiction of “the underbelly of life” that passes for African writers’ image of Africa, is with all due respect, absolute nonsense. There is nothing original in Tram 83, and not much that is creative, sadly. In fact. many African writers should protest such disrespect to their work, which is the propagation of poverty porn as African literature.  Chris Abani has done as much harm to Africa’s dignity but with better prose and creativity  vision. Indeed, reading Tram 83 filled me with incredible sadness, because I thought we had gone past the notion of African writing as a pejorative, the expectation that the only literature that can come out of Africa is one that reeks of misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, despair, poverty, wars and rapes, with women and children objectified as unthinking sex objects, hewers of wood, and mules.

Mabanckou is dead wrong; Tram 83 breaks no new ground. Let me just say I am yet to read a book written by an African that was more disrespectful to Africans than this book, and I am including Abani’s books. This is clearly how not to write about Africa. You read Tram 83, rub your eyes and ask the question: And why is this unique to Africa? The cynicism and jadedness that Mujila directs at Africa in the name of fiction is nuclear: Mujila’s Africa is all stereotypes and caricature, filled with stick figures fucking mindlessly, defecating, wolfing down “dog cutlets” and “grilled rats” and drinking up a storm under the watchful eyes of a supercilious writer. It is all so annoying. I thought we were past this nonsense.

Tram 83 starts with a promise. And ends right there, dissolving into the detritus of Black Africa’s failures and regurgitating the same old tired stuff about Africa we already know. Tram 83 with its obsessions with women’s breasts and buttocks, rat and dog meat, baby mamas, and unthinking hustlers, is Africa peopled by those who only live to eat, fuck, shit and beg for sex and money. Tram 83 is debauchery always interrupting reasoned thought, because the way African Diaspora writers see it, in Africa, there is no reasoned thought. In Tram 83, Africa’s men doze, wake up, order dog meat and grilled rats and fuck more women, pretend humans with fake buttocks and “melon breasts’ and return to sleep to continue with the misogyny and self-loathing. Africa has suffered.

Tram 83 1Tram 83 is a strange, confusing concept; lacking a plot or any discernible vision, the reader is forced to endure a droll roller-coaster that leans on what appears to be an autobiographical dream: Lucien the writer-protagonist has an idea for a novel and he pitches it to a prospective publisher:

I trained as a historian. I think, unless I am mistaken, that literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history. It is by way of literature that I can reestablish the truth. I intend to piece together the memory of a country that exists only on paper. To fantasize about the City-State and the Back-Country with a view to exploring collective memory. Historical characters are my waymarks. But baby-chicks, diggers, famished students, tourists, and …

The prospective publisher is not impressed and brushes him off with a prescription. This is what you should not write about, the publisher says, because the world is tired of it:

I’m familiar with that view of things. We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature too! (pp 44-46)

And what does Mujila do? He proceeds to give the world Tram 83, over 200 pages of rancid poverty porn. Re-fried beans as literature. I thought we were past that.

Tram 83 is a strange book. The pace is sometimes maddening, boring in many places. It features mysterious puzzling prose. One sentence can go on for as long as two pages, (yes, two pages of one sentence; midway you are begging for sweet relief or death). Maddening. After pages of this silliness, I understood the problem with the book. The “novel” must have been first conceived as a movie script, hawked around as one and when Mujila could not get a buyer, he convinced a publisher that it would work as a novel. The result is a clumsy novel clutching an essay that waxes incoherent on the looming demise of African literature and the world as Mujila knows it. In a flat one-dimensional medium of the book, Mujila tries using two-page long sentences to create scenes meant for the stage or a movie and he fails spectacularly.

In order to understand the motivation behind Tram 83 and the minds of Glasser (the translator) and Mujila you must read this insightful interview of both in Bomb Magazine by Sophia Samatar. They are both steeped in and passionate about the performance arts; this explains why the book reads like a failed movie script. It is a useful interview and Mujila comes across as a brilliant visionary with profound insights on his world. He says: When a state ceases to exist, your body becomes your own state, the one and only state you have. And suddenly it occurs to the reader, this is the 21st century, old walls are crumbling around communities and new walls are forming around the individual. Mujila is right: This paradigm shift offers new possibilities – and problems, especially for the artificial nation-states of Africa. Who are we? Who should we be?

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Let me recommend Chinua Achebe’s insightful essay, Today, the Balance of Stories (in the book of essays, Home and Exile) to all African writers who wish to reflect on how they portray Africa. His 2000 interview by Ashley Fetters in The Atlantic offers the same profound views:

The Atlantic: In Home and Exile, you talk about the negative ways in which British authors such as Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary portrayed Africans over the centuries. What purpose did that portrayal serve?

Achebe: It was really a straightforward case of setting us up, as it were. The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in very lurid terms. The reason for this had to do with the need to justify the slave trade and slavery. The cruelties of this trade gradually began to trouble many people in Europe. Some people began to question it. But it was a profitable business, and so those who were engaged in it began to defend it—a lobby of people supporting it, justifying it, and excusing it. It was difficult to excuse and justify, and so the steps that were taken to justify it were rather extreme. You had people saying, for instance, that these people weren’t really human, they’re not like us. Or, that the slave trade was in fact a good thing for them, because the alternative to it was more brutal by far.

And therefore, describing this fate that the Africans would have had back home became the motive for the literature that was created about Africa. Even after the slave trade was abolished, in the nineteenth century, something like this literature continued, to serve the new imperialistic needs of Europe in relation to Africa. This continued until the Africans themselves, in the middle of the twentieth century, took into their own hands the telling of their story.

For me, this is not about prescribing to writers a certain way of writing about Africa, it is about purpose, it is also perhaps about expectations in the face of changing roles and circumstances. It occurs to me that perhaps my expectations of that tribe called “African writers” are misplaced and unrealistic. Certainly, in the 21st century, they do not speak for anyone but themselves. It is however the defining tragedy of Africa that these are the voices that the world hears. For, for as long as the West especially listens to these self-exiles, these Diaspora writers lounging in alien cafes, Africa will be seen as a space for caricatures, pretend-humans, by a self-loathing intellectual class. For as long as we read what passes for African literature in books, we will only read of the Africa of women objectified as merchandise and unthinking creatures, cute dolts only raised to fuck for money, to turn tricks. The unintended consequence of seeing everything written by an African writer as unique to Africa is that the vision is thus dimmed. All the reader sees are vast islands of despair while “African thinkers and writers” drink lattes in soulless places and write gibberish about places they long fled from. Let me repeat myself: Tram 83 is also about who “speaks for Africa” in the 21st century. Imagine an American immersing himself in a pawnshop in the seediest part of Southeast Washington DC, penning drunken prose and declaring it American writing. That would be Tram 83. I daresay that all the voices revered as voices of Africa by the gatekeepers of literature are Diaspora writers pecking away at their laptops in the coffee shops of the West. As the walls come down, in this new intimate global world, perhaps it is time to stop the pretense that these folks are speaking for Africa. The new gentrification makes a mockery of their pretensions. Again, Why do we write? What is the purpose of writing? How does the writing in Tram 83 affect the price of bush meat in the Congo? The truth is absolutely zero. Most of today’s African writers are not only largely indifferent to the social and political challenges of African nations, in some instances they are complicit in the mess. Nigeria is an example of team incompetence, of collaboration between once-dreamers (writers and intellectuals) and ever-thieves (politicians) to plunder and loot a rich to perdition.Tram 83 3

By the way, I am tired of Western patrons of the arts infantilizing African writers whose only achievement seems to be that they have written a book. It is affirmative action taken too far. The Western gatekeepers of “African literature” are keeping poverty porn alive by indulging these writers. I can just see your stereotypical “African writer” lounging in the chic cafes of Europe and North America infantilizing the Africa of his or her imagination in the worst possible way as a besotted white critic listens adoringly. I think of a writer playing at the edges, with faux innovation, egged on by a gleeful Western readership.

The self-loathing and the stereotypes in Tram 83 simply grate on the reader’s nerves. It is interesting to me that of all the fawning reviews by the major news outlets, not one of them complained about the horrid misogyny in the book, women objectified beyond belief as if they are one-dimensional simpering sub-humans only good for cheap sex in strange places. An alert reader in Goodreads did complain politely:

An overwhelming tumult of language, something like being pulled under by a big ocean wave and sent tumbling. The story itself was secondary to the feeling. It’s a very male book. Also overwhelming was the endless stream of women’s commodified bodies being described by their parts–women were defined in the story by what men see, what men touch. I was in turn riveted, repulsed, bored, amazed, wrenched around.

The reader put it too politely, Tram 83 is not merely a male book, Tram 83 is a frontal, violent attack on African women. This is not just merely a male book, it reeks of misogyny on each page. In Mujila’s world, in his Congo, women are nothing but mere objects to be used and discarded like used condoms. On every page. Any white writer who dared describe an African this way would be called a racist:

In the meantime, he assessed the curves patrolling the sector. Steatopygia remained the epitome of beauty. All the honeys swore by Brazilian buttocks alone. You had to have those buttocks, or nothing. They would desperately slug a particular soy-based drink, take pills, and swallow food intended for pigs in order to increase the area of their rumps. The results left much to be desired: buttocks shaped like pineapples, avocados, balloons, or baseballs; one buttock excessively more pronounced than the other; oblique, square, or rectangular buttocks; buttocks that pedaled all by themselves, and so on. (p. 18)

What is new here? VS Naipaul would approve.

It also says a lot that none of the reviews that I read could make any connection between Mujila’s humanity (albeit inarticulately expressed) and anywhere else outside of Africa, certainly nowhere near the West. To them, Tram 83 was about Africa, just as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was not about a shared humanity, but about a simple yam farmer in Igboland. Africa’s humanity is not of theirs. Perhaps this is what African writers know, and that is why they laze around the cafes of Europe and North America, trying hard not to be invisible people, but looking like what the singer Hugh Masekela says: We are invisible. We are bad imitations of the people who oppressed us. Yes, a close reading of Tram 83 and you will be tempted to be generous to Mujila. You would be tempted to say this is not just about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this is not just about Africa, it is about our humanity, about those that increasingly left behind as the detritus of capitalism and rank bigotry of the moneyed class, Donald Trump’s new victims, the ones that the scholar Amatoritsero Ede worries a­bout:

The core instinct and ethic of this [Donald Trump’s] bi-polar regime is disdain for the Other and an official dissimulation to sustain it. This is in keeping with America’s founding egotism – American interest above all interests. And in that regard, who is defined as ‘American’ is ultimately (de)based on the same Othering disdain and spite, which in its most vitriolic form, escapes out as the murderous actions of an unrepentant Dylan Roof. America’s political death-wish is the result of that unthinking, headless racism. What else could have brought an alt-right-post-truth-alternative-facts-President to power if not an insidious and cancerously benign racism couched in the language of shameless self-interest, rabid nationalism and of ‘securing a homeland’ that is, in reality, only a body of immigrants – except for the indigenous ‘first nation’ native American.

Ede is right. A close reading will show that Tram 83 is perhaps about migration, from place to place, from a certain hell to a new uncertain hell. It is a daily trek through mountains and seas, the disenchanted and the disenfranchised will not stop until relief – or death comes. Ben Taub has a good piece in the New Yorker on the forced migration of thousands of teen-agers from Nigeria who risk death and endure forced labor and the degradation of prostitution work in Europe. You can hardly tell from this mess of an experimental script, but Mujila is probably thinking about them as the narrator mused:

… that a new world was coming, the Railroad Diva, beers were passed around, we trembled from head to toe, we dumped in our pants, we masturbated, we climbed on the tables, we banged our head against the walls, we gathered at the doors to the mixed facilities, that voice, that voice, that voice, it penetrated us, flayed us, trampled us, shredded us, voyage, birth, dream, we thought of those whom the earth had swallowed up, all those whom the trains had taken following a derailment, the bitterness and the eyes riveted on those who’d left to seek new lives across the ocean and who’d never got there betrayed by the wave ….” (pp. 179-180)

Ultimately Tram 83 is about the power of words and of the medium of expression, and what gets lost in translation. In Tram 83, a powerful narrative lumbers through layers of translation and in the wrong media format it becomes a huge canvas for humiliating an already humiliated people. I don’t care what the blurb writers and the reviewers of Tram 83 say, this book should have remained a script, not another ream of poverty porn. How is it that the voices of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are only seen through the eyes of a seedy nightclub? There is no music here, unless when it is mocked, there are no thinkers here, even Lucien the writer is a hustler. And there is the politics of the translation: Why did Alain Mabanckou or any other Congolese scholar not do the translation? He speaks and writes French just as fluently.

Mujila should re-work the novel into the movie script that he probably dreamed of,  make a movie, let the world see the people of the Congo dance, let them see that Africans are not drunken monkeys, they think about things too, he should tell the word that he and Naipaul are wrong, real people live in Africa. Indeed, it is the case that the reader will get more from Anthony Bourdain’s television food series’ trip to the Congo, than from Tram 83. You will learn that the worst holocaust in modern history may have happened in the DRC (yes, King Leopold of Belgium is said to have exterminated 10 million Congolese). Google the late Mobutu Sese Seko and you will find out how he looted the DRC to perdition and built decaying monuments to his deadly buffoonery. And yes, with all due respect to Glasser, the translation did little for me. Mujila should give us the movie. Make your script into the movie and let us do the translation. Let me be clear, this is the 21st century, no one should write like this about Africa. There is no compassion, there is no vision.

African literature as exists in books has had the effect of distorting the narrative of Africa, so much is lost in translation as writers and publishers struggle to keep market share by fashioning plots and discourse that appeal to an imagined Western audience. Perhaps it is time to return to the oral tradition of our ancestors. I hope Mujila finds a movie for his book. It would make a great movie. As a work of fiction, it sucks. There, I said it, come and beat me. What gets lost in translation is what one doesn’t, or refuses to see. Tram 83 is not about Africa. It is about us. Ask Trump. The failure to connect it beyond the boundaries of the DRC is more a testament to an ossified mindset than anything else. He should find inspiration from the robust work of  Ousmane Sembene (the famed author of God’s Bits of Wood) and his return to the film and the oral tradition as a form of expression. If all else fails, there is always YouTube. There is no excuse for sticking with an inappropriate medium in the 21st century.

I have said it before and I will say it again; What passes for African literature, as determined by the Western gatekeepers of narrative suffers the crushing burden of alienation–from what gets lost in the translation. Who speaks for “Africa”? This question speaks to the growing irrelevance of orthodox African writers and writing to the real narrative about Africa. This is not Africa. The reader would have to go to social media and other outlets on the Internet to see Africa. Over there, Africans are proving that they are the sum of their lived experiences. The growing incoherence and irrelevance of African writers is not all their fault. But as they go to those conferences and fora that only they attend, as they give themselves high-fives over puzzling narrative that only they read, they must ponder these questions that African readers are increasingly asking: What do our writers see? What is their vision? What is their mission? Do they see a world without walls and the implications not just for Africa but for the rest of the world? One last thing: The fiction of the idealistic incorruptible African writer is a silly myth. Those days are gone. Today, the African writer is a hustler, either at home or abroad, his or her muse fueled by loot from the oppressors at home, and/or abroad. Nigeria is a good case. The writers and intellectuals have become the problem. Yet they persist in writing horror stories of Africa that absolve them from blame. They are not to blame, because they have become the problem. A huge problem. Would I read Tram 83 again? No, once is enough. Would I recommend the book to anyone? I would wait for the movie. Tram 83 would make a great movie, I think.

On that Buhari Media Center, paid “public intellectuals” and assorted jazz

What’s on my mind? The Buhari Media Center, the pejorative now known as the BMC. Apparently, there is a place in Abuja, Nigeria, where young men and women are assembled and for 200-250K a month they are mandated to spin the national narrative in a certain direction – to please and flatter Aso Rock. The discovery of this house of poorly educated (from their tweets and FB posts, they surely need to be in school, not “proffering solutions, lol) imitation Goebbels has created quite the furor. For good reason.

What do I think? I am not exercised by it. I do think the government of the day has every right to have a PR outfit. Indeed Buhari’s abysmal leadership performance has required a really robust professional PR team to help the populace swallow the bitter pill of disappointment that has been Aso Rock to date. The BMC is of course far from professional and effective. But that is another Facebook post. By the way, the irony and the hypocrisy are not lost on me that the government appears to be paying an army of hustlers lots of money to do what Audu Maikori got detained for: manufacturing and/or spreading fake news. Audu apologized. The others got paid.

What I have found objectionable is that those behind the BMC appear to have been paying young writers/bloggers/social media “overlords” and other assorted scumbags to appear to be objective public commentators. That toga has of course given them cover and credibility to spin the narrative and national discourse at least on social media, in the favor of their paymasters. In many instances they have engaged in Goebellsian subterfuge, bullying, blackmailing and trying to run aground people with views hostile to Aso Rock’s agenda. That is wrong. Disgusting actually. All this time, many of us had been engaging paid hacks and we did not know it. They have every right to be employed, we the public have every right to know their names and how much they are paid so that we can discount their utterances accordingly.

In fairness, as obnoxious as they are, the members of the BMC team are tiny shrimp in the grand scheme of things. They are being paid pennies to write half-baked stuff, while “public commentators” who many Nigerians think are independent arbiters of public opinion are bleating all the way to the bank with millions of Naira. One day, the records will be released and Nigerians will gasp at the unmasking of masquerades. Many voices are being paid to do many awful things to dissenting voices. The members of the BMC is bad, but they are altar boys compared to the big guns paid to defend darkness. Many of those concerned Nigerians who write on “international newspapers” are doing what the government has paid them to write. Yup. I happen to know.

Many nations would require these paid lobbyists to register publicly as, well, lobbyists. Once identified, the public clearly knows where they are coming from. When they write op-ed pieces in the New York Times, they are required to issue a disclaimer at the end of the piece – that they are paid lobbyists of clearly identified interests. Not so our Nigerian hustlers. They do not understand the notion of conflict of interest and ethical violations. There is no motivation because they are not held accountable, the laws are not enforceable.

I was once part of an editorial board that had a top ranking aide of a governor as a sitting member. He did not understand why it was a conflict to be making “objective” comments about governmental policies of that which you serve. And virtually everyone on the Board agreed with him. Much of what we do with respect to the Nigerian project is a farce, we have pretend functions and processes and just want to look the part. We are really not that interested in ethical conduct. It doesn’t put enough food on the table.

Let me end on a positive note by thanking all those mostly young advocates who have forced the government’s feet to the fire by using technology, hard data and good old shoe leather hard work. Without them we would be held hostage by a heavily compromised media, a corrupt tribe of intellectuals and a deadly congress of baboons pretending to rule our nation. Young people are taking matters into their hands and making some progress without the help of anyone. I see how they dealt with the budget scandals, Buhari’s health issues, Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai’s attempts to gag dissent, etc and I am filled with pride. A lot more needs to be done, and things will get better. We have no choice. There may be hope after all.

Good night.

Sex, the bees and the boys…

Sex. Let’s talk about sex, you know, let’s talk about the birds and the bees. In my country, Africa, there is this lovely tradition where elderly men call young men into the family room, or sunroom or living room of their huts and over human skull cups of ice-cold beer, Malbec, or warm cognac VSOP, tell them about the birds and the bees, you know, sex.

By the way, in Africa, men do not teach girls about sex, it is taboo for real men to talk to women about those things. That is the job of women. This is a fact. Read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart please for more information about this great custom, in that great book, girls learn the truth, that babies come into this world on the strong backs of weaver birds. This is why African men flog boys who come close to their daughters. Unless they are rich. Girls must remain chaste for their weaver birds.

So this one day, my dad Papalolo talked to me about sex and got me drunk. I remember that fateful day. It was in 1980 on a cold snowy harmattan day in our village, Ewu. I was very young, I had just finished my national youth service corp program (NYSC) after graduating from the University of Benin, the Harvard of Africa, with a First Class Upper degree. I hate to brag, but I am the only one in Africa with a First Class, Upper degree. Yes o, I was always first in class! Nor be today I begin to know book!

As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself, I walked into Papalolo’s sunroom (we have those in Africa, you know, smh!) with a copy of The Economist under one arm while texting my friend Emeka on my Samsung Galaxy 1.5 about meeting him at Shoprite down the road later. I loved hanging out with Emeka, we would hold hands like real men do, and go from store to store in our village mall dreaming about going to Dubai together and buying things we couldn’t afford! We loved Victoria’s Secrets, our village mall had one across from Radio Shack. I loved our village Radio Shack, I was always buying knick-knacks from there with my dad’s American Express card. Long story. I will tell you later.

Anyway, as I walked into the room, my dad looked up at me and he frowned, he was in a bad mood, I quickly surmised that he was missing his iPad; Obioma the tailor had taken it away for repairs, the Made in China SIM card was not working and GLO and MTN signals were being finicky. Dad did not look happy.

In those days, my dad, Papalolo loved to be on Facebook where he would spend all day “liking” inanities and typing “LOL!”on cute girls’ walls while drinking Gulder or cognac, and when he couldn’t be on Facebook or Twitter, he would become a crabby pain in the ass.

This day, I was his victim. As I walked into his sunroom, he looked up from his beer and copy of Sahara Reporters (in those days, they had print copy), peered at me through his bifocals, coughed and said, “My son, I never see you with girls! All I see you with are men and books, abi you don’t like women? Abomination! Tufiakwa!” We are not igbo, I don’t know why he was fond of bleating “Tufiakwa!” Perhaps, it was all those Achebe books he read! I told him I liked women but I didn’t know what to say to them! He said, “Ah, that’s easy, my son, whenever you see a pretty woman, tell her she’s pretty, she will smile and once you make a woman smile you are half way there! If she’s not pretty, tell her she’s pretty anyway, when she smiles she’ll be pretty!” I told him I am too shy to talk to girls. He shoved a bottle of Gulder beer in my hands, “Here, drink a beer, it will loosen your tongue and make you bold in front of women! Drink two sef!” Papalolo was right, beer loosens tongues!

Well, the other day here in America, I decided I needed to talk to our teenage son Fearless Fang about the birds and the bees, you know, sex. I would start early, no need waiting for him to graduate from the university! So, we were in the car Anikeleja cruising along the highway and I coughed and said, “Son, we have to talk about sex!” OMG!, you’d think I had shot this boy! He screamed,”OH MY GOD, DADDY!!!! THAT IS SOOOOO DISGUSTING!!! THAT IS WHAT HEALTH CLASS IS FOR!!! STOP THIS CAR RIGHT NOW!!! I AM SO CALLING SOCIAL SERVICES ON YOUR AFRICAN BLACK ASS, SMH!!! OH MY GOD, DADDY, WHY WOULD I BE DISCUSSING SEX WITH YOU, GROSS!!! YOU ARE MY DADDY! STOP THIS CAR RIGHT NOW!!! OH MY GOD, DADDY!!! WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS? I WANT MY MUMMY!!!”

I was driving at 70 miles per hour, I am telling you, that boy jumped out of the car and raced back home into the waiting arms of his mother, whimpering, “Bad daddy! Bad daddy!!!” What a wimp! At his age, I was a colonel in the Biafran army, assisting Carl Gustav Von Rosen to drop ogbunigwe bombs in the moat in Benin City.

So much for sex ed. SMH. That did not go well. Sigh. I will continue the conversation in our sunroom after Fearless Fang graduates from university. We have sunrooms in America, you know? I wonder if ML has talked to the girls about sex! I am not going there, who wan die? Besides I am a titled chief, the Ogbejele II of Esanland. It would be taboo for me to talk to our daughters about those things! I am sure ML has told them that children come from heaven on the backs of weaver birds or American storks and it is bad luck for a boy to touch them anywhere until they are thirty! Pray for me.

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