The Trials of Chris Abani and the Power of Empty Words

I write this for Nigeria, beautiful but troubled land that houses my umbilical cord…

So, the other day I was watching a video clip of a Nigerian caught in the claws of the UK immigration. He had just alighted from a plane, clutching a fake passport and a detailed script for responding to pesky questions by UK immigration officials. The interview with the UK officials is at once funny and sad. If you have the time, you may watch the tragi-comedy here. When he is told he would be sent back home to Nigeria he breaks down in copious tears, kneels down and begs for relief. This warrior truly doesn’t want to go home for reasons different from the tissue of lies he has offered. The terror in his eyes hurts to behold. He looks like he is in his early thirties but he has definitely been schooled in the immigration laws of the UK; he loudly claims to be fifteen – a vulnerable minor in need of protection. He is clearly not fifteen but skeptical authorities decide to take him to a home where he would stay until his age is determined. He absconds and disappears into the catacombs of London never to be seen again. You cheer for this warrior until you realize that lacking any discernible skills his life is not going to be much better in London (English subtitles mock his halting English, humiliating hints of an abusive Nigerian educational system). Who knows, maybe his offspring will live a better life.  Our leaders should be shot. Yes, our leaders should be shot. I am not only referring to our political leaders. When the history of Africa’s troubled journey is accurately chronicled, the world will come to realize the horror of the self-serving perfidy of Africa’s intellectual leaders. We are the new self-serving colonialists perpetuating black-on-black crime on our own people. Ask the underclass of South Africa now attending to the narcissism of their black elite.

The degree of narcissism and self-absorption is mind-boggling. Many of our intellectual leaders are, like their political brethren, indifferent to personal responsibility. For them, flowery words are perfect substitutes for good character. Many will forever remember how the great fraud Philip Emeagwali wormed his way into credible history books as the “Father of the Internet.” Why, his face is permanently etched on a Nigerian postage stamp as a great son of Africa, this man who defrauds thousands daily by claiming that his graduate term paper makes him the founder of the Internet. His lies and exaggerations are copiously chronicled here by Sahara Reporters. If you need only the abridged Cliff notes, click on this. Please do not google “Emeagwali fraud,” your computer will crash from the e-rage. There are extremely reliable rumors that this trickster was set to receive Nigeria’s highest honor in 2010 until news of his hoax went viral on the Internet. Using his sordidly self-serving website here,  Emeagwali continues to ply his sick trade in America as a Black History Month pimp where folks desperate for black heroes uncritically accept his daring lies and obfuscations. By the way, whatever happened to the Nigerian government’s vow to investigate Philip Emeagwali?

When it comes to matters of immigration, I must concede that it is complicated; I generally make no judgment about how and why folks move from place to place. Right now, young people are doing daring things to escape what are admittedly harsh conditions in Africa. Hundreds die annually crossing roiling seas just to escape the disastrous consequences of their leaders’ perfidy. What they are doing is no different from what the colonialists did in coming to America. The face of immigration is browning, that is the only difference. This earth belongs to all of us, and you live where you can afford to.

The eighties and the nineties were particularly brutal years for Nigerians. Waves of murderous dictators took turns making life miserable for the people – and enriching themselves and their families in the process. Writers and artists were vulnerable. Many fought ferociously and were just as ferociously attacked for their beliefs and words. Many lost their lives and many are forever broken by the savagery that was visited upon them. The books of these brave warriors document their harrowing experiences in the hands of dictators. It is the truth. Well, not all of it is the truth. As in every instance, there are those who would take advantage of situations for self-serving reasons. Every now and then, a celebrated writer gets caught in the web of lies and exaggerations.  There is the sad case of Ishmael Beah, author of the memoir, A Long Way Gone, a bestseller about Beah’s days as a child-soldier. That book ran into difficulties when some dogged researchers did some homework and came up with the compelling conclusion that the book is mostly reams of lies and exaggerations (see some links here).  What is particularly tragic here is that Beah’s book is, in my humble opinion, a very good and important book; it could have been marketed as fiction, but no, I imagine that Beah and his agent concluded that the only way it would sell would be to claim fantastic adventures that have spurious basis in fact. The West’s hunger for child-soldier stories is insatiable and many alleged child-soldiers are wailing all the way to their suburban banks in Europe and America.

So the other day, I was doing some research on the acclaimed Nigerian writer Chris Abani and I came across these comic howlers on his Wikipedia page:

“Christopher Abani (or Chris Abani) (born December 27, 1966) is a Nigerian author. Abani’s first novel, Masters of the Board, was about a Neo-Nazi takeover of Nigeria. The book earned one reviewer to praise Abani as “Africa’s answer to Frederick Forsyth.” The Nigerian government, however, believed the book to be a blueprint for an actual coup, and sent the 18-year-old Abani to prison in 1985. After serving six months in jail, he was released, but he went on to perform in a guerilla theatre group. This action led to his arrest and imprisonment at Kiri Kiri, a notorious prison. He was released again, but after writing his play Song of a Broken Flute he was arrested for a third time, sentenced to death, and sent to the Kalakuta Prison, where he was jailed with other political prisoners and inmates on death row. His father is Igbo, while his mother was English born.”

“He spent some of his prison time in solitary confinement, but was freed in 1991. He lived in exile in London until a friend was murdered there in 1999; he then fled to the United States.”

Kalakuta prison! Who knows of such a prison? Based on these tales, in 2003, Abani is offered and happily accepts to be a recipient of the Hellman/Hammett grants awarded to 28 “brave” writers from all over the world. Here is Abani’s citation:

“Chris Abani (Nigeria), poet and novelist, was arrested in 1985 and again in 1987 when plots of his novels were said to be plans for attempts to overthrow the government. He spent six months in prison in 1985. In 1987, he was held in Kiri-Kiri Maximum Security Prison for a year and tortured. On his release, Mr. Abani entered Imo State University. Inspired by Wole Soyinka’s use of theater as protest, Mr. Abani formed a theater group that wrote and performed anti-government sketches. In 1990, he wrote a play, Song of the Broken Flute, for the University’s commencement exercises which the military head of state and military governor were scheduled to attend. The play, a series of monologues that decried government corruption and its effects on the people, landed him back in prison on treason charges. Released after 18 months, he graduated from Imo State University and joined the national service. Several attempts on his life while in boot camp prompted him to flee to England. He lived there quietly until publication of his prison memoir in 1997, when he began speaking out. As a result, the Nigerian government applied to have him extradited to stand trial for treason again. In December 1999, following the doorstep murder of his next-door neighbor, the only other Nigerian in the building, Mr. Abani left England for the United States. He now lives in California and is a doctoral student in literature at the University of Southern California.”

The story gets hilarious and changes with each re-telling. No one bothers to check. To be fair to his fellow writers, this award caused quite an uproar on krazitivity an online listserv of writers. He was put to task and he offered some defense of sorts before promptly disappearing out of sight. In the defense he pointedly avoids mention of the alleged death sentence. There were many responses, restrained, polite but expressing robust incredulity. The artist and poet Olu Oguibe asked for independent verification pointing out accurately that as an activist and student union leader himself he did not remember these tales; he did remember the late Chima Ubani who suffered eerily similar travails in the hands of the Nigerian government.  He has since expanded on his skepticism, with even more profound analysis on my Facebook page. The writer Nnorom Azuonye offered a compelling deconstruction of Abani’s 2003 defense here.

It is one thing for Abani to tell a lie and then move on with his life. It is another thing for him to continue to perpetuate the same lie at the expense of Africa. It is obnoxious and offensive, and if he was white, it would be considered racist. Since the confrontation/intervention in 2003, Abani has gone on to conduct moving interviews and given speeches expanding in graphic detail his alleged experiences. As I said earlier, the details get more fantastic in the re-telling and details and dates change each time. It is comic really. Watching Abani in 2008 here on TED, you wonder if he has delusions of grandeur, the man really believes all this stuff. You have to read this piece and watch the video clip. There is this piece of brilliant fiction where Abani talks about ending up in solitary on Nigeria’s “death row” and witnessing the execution of  “John James,”a 14-year old prisoner. “John James didn’t really understand death row and believed they’d get out. “They killed him. They handcuffed him to a chair, nailed his penis to a table, and let him bleed to death. That’s how I ended up in solitary, because I made my feelings known.” So many questions: How come no one has publicly called him on these lies? THAT is the real scandal. And the damage to Nigeria is needless. Such a brilliant writer, weaving unnecessary lies! Where is the outrage? Read this and marvel at Abani’s abilities to weave utter fiction. And yes, I have made up my mind, Abani is lying through all his teeth; he definitely lives in pure fantasy-land. Google Abani and there are all these Westerners fawning over him, they did not even bother to check the facts – reverse racism feeds some of our African intellectuals’ wallets. Read this interview and be royally teed. And here is another load of bullcrap. Abani ought to offer apologies for doing this to Nigeria and Africa.

These are questions I pose directly to Chris Abani: Were you really sentenced to death in Nigeria for your involvement in the Mamman Vatsa coup? Do you have copies of the extradition documents from the Nigerian government? Produce something, a newspaper clipping, anything and I will personally apologize to you for doubting you. It is amazing that up until now, no one has ever seen fit to call Abani on his lies and exaggerations. His appalling conduct threatens to distort permanently Nigeria’s already tortured history. There have been private complaints about his narcissistic behavior, yet no one has seen fit to come forth and complain about this outrage. The simplest explanation is that Abani is a hugely talented and influential writer; people, especially his peers are reluctant to confront him publicly because they do not want to be seen as raining on a talented writer’s parade. Words are powerful. In the hands of the gifted they can move armies to awesome destruction. It is not always a good thing. Words woven into lies can do major structural damage and trust becomes collateral damage. It is truly very simple; Abani should go to Nigeria, visit Kirikiri prisons like the writer and activist Ogaga Ifowodo recently did, show the world his cell and ask the authorities to give him copies of his incarceration documents. They are all there waiting for him. Failing that, he should shut up and keep writing. We will buy his books and love him regardless. Yes, will the real Christopher Abani stand up? In the name of Africa, I say stand up, speak the truth and sit down.

Binyavanga Wainaina, British Crumpets and Literary Insularity

My good friend, Chielozona Eze has uncharacteristically harsh words for the writer Binyavanga Wainaina who recently threw some of his world-renowned signature bombs into the dainty rooms of English literature. According to the UK Guardian, the prize-winning author Wainaina” has attacked the insularity of British authors, describing their work as “indigestible” for Kenyan readers, and suggesting that “you’d struggle to find any significant books that come out of Britain” about the African experience.” Read all about it here. In his blog, Eze responds with muscular fierceness:  “As one who owes his life to good luck and the empathic gestures from Europeans during the Biafran war, I find it somewhat disturbing that Wainaina, who was born circa a decade after the Biafran war, and far removed from the scenes of Biafran horrors, would make a sweeping condemnation of rescue/aid agencies such as Oxfam. In my case, in 1968/69, it was the Irish aid agency “Concern” that saved me and many other famishing, kwashiorkor Biafran kids. Without Concern, and perhaps, Oxfam, I would have perhaps succumbed to the famine that was orchestrated by fellow Nigerians/Africans. Why would any person in his right mind ever condemn Bob Geldorf for having responded to the human tragedy that took place in Ethiopia and Somalia? I am sincerely baffled.” I am still digesting Wainaina’s thoughts and trying to reflect on what it all means. Eze has certainly got the ball rolling. Never a dull moment. Enjoy the literary rumble in the e-jungle here.

Telling all our Stories

Growing up in Nigeria, I viewed the world around me through books  most of which were regulated, for good or for bad, by the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. I was immensely entertained and educated by the vast majority of the books I read. In addition to the traditional fare, there was always self-publishing or publishing on the side. I remember the enthusiastic authors of that indigenous genre of works fondly known as Onitsha Market Literature. As teenagers, many of us honed our love letter writing skills with their hilarious pamphlets. I cherish my copy of the venerable Ogali A. Ogali’s Veronica My Daughter And Other Onitsha Plays And Stories. Enjoy my ode to that genre of entertainment here. The late great Professor Emmanuel Obiechina did ground-breaking work on Onitsha Market Literature, google him. I have a treat for you; the University of Kansas has a rich collection complete with their pdf texts here. It is not great literature but it is an important and hugely entertaining marker of a certain period.

The Internet continues the tradition of sharing all our stories despite the loud protests of the traditional gatekeepers of literature who seem threatened by the democratization of creative expression on the Internet. I have tremendous respect for books, but I am also fascinated by all the literary activity currently taking place digitally. There are many individuals leading this charge; the Nigerian writer who goes by the name Myne Whitman is easily one of the most important forces quietly shaping the trajectory of Nigerian stories on the Internet. She has a lot of energy and enthusiasm, she is passionate about the literature of the people who live within that geographic space called Nigeria, AND she has an extremely large following. As I said, she is also a writer. Her writing is not what you would call “serious literature”, she has written two books, A Heart to Mend and A Love Rekindled, both of them self-published.

I am still reading Whitman’s works and taking copious notes. One day I will have something to say about the works of folks like her, Kiru Taye, Ugo Chime, and Olapeju Ogunbiade, Nigerians who  plumb the depths of our sexuality and sensuality using the digital space. To read Ogunbiade’s contributions, go to Facebook and “like” her “Let’s Talk About it” community. Ugo Chime plies her literary trade here on Daily Times, Nigeria. Why do I mention these names in the same breath as literature? Well, because, we may not agree with these writers, but their contributions should be taken as seriously as that of those who seek to define our stories through books. Africa is a complex elephant and I worry that she is being described only by a set of observers. We are the sum of our lived lives. What folks like Myne Whitman are doing is insisting that all stories must be told and heard.

Myne Whitman has earned my respect on one level; as founder and proprietor of the literary site naijastories, she has helped to mentor and give rich voice to a large tier of writers that no one sees or seems to care about. She does not discriminate as far as I can determine, anyone with a muse gets published. It is a very busy site, it could be better organized, for one thing.  There are many enthusiastic writers there and sometimes the eyes glaze over. It would be great to set aside a space on the site that showcases works that have been peer-reviewed and judged worthy of accolades.  On that website there are ample opportunities for peers to review and provide feedback on one’s work. There are many sites like this on the web and on social media, and aspiring writers should sign on and join their peers in the arduous task of becoming a better writer.

Why am I saying all of this? I consider myself to be first and foremost a consumer of literature. I am very passionate about African literature and I do believe sincerely that these are exciting times to be alive if you love the stories of Africa. You can overdose on them for free on the Internet and writers like Myne Whitman make it possible. In my review of African writing, I have complained ad nauseam that Africa is being viewed from a very narrow perspective – through the books of a tiny band of writers who have unfettered access to Western publishers and arts patrons. It is time to stop complaining and start introducing them to the works of those who are hidden in plain sight – beginning with Myne Whitman and Naijastories. In terms of other digital resources I shared some thoughts here. I would like to hear from you: What are your favorite sites where writers hang out? By the way, this summer, I had a long rambling real-time chat with some members of the Naijastories community  that touched on a lot of my long-held views about literature, etc. It is a rough transcript but I like it a lot because I actually did not hold back much.


Walks with Julius: Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’

NOTE: Initially published June 4, 2011 on Next.

Teju Cole’s enigmatic new book ‘Open City’ is truly unusual. Imagine a book that, when doused with the rich waters of the writer’s curiosity and intellect, grows exponentially until it overwhelms the reader’s senses. In this experiment, Cole takes a different approach to writing a novel. There is virtually no plot to the novel, to use the term novel loosely, and the author dispenses with the use of quotes in dialogue. Thankfully, ‘Open City’ is a monologue a lot of times; Julius is in love with the sound of his own voice. Furthermore, it seems that every plot is hatched and allowed to promptly disappear into the catacombs of New York City and Europe, the settings for the book. The novel is rich and messy. Just like life.

Inspecting the catacombs ‘Open City’ is about myriad issues, most of them unrelated. The main character, Julius, an uber-brainy restless German-Nigerian, seems devoid of humour, appears to be clinically depressed and walks around New York City’s (and Europe’s) streets relentlessly, as if afflicted with the Sokugo. He picks up issues and conversations everywhere from the people and places he encounters along the way. Like a lonely prisoner exercising in a prison yard he ekes out snippets of conversations from fellow prisoners: “At first, I encountered the streets as an incessant loudness, a shock after the day’s focus and relative tranquillity, as though someone had shattered the calm of a silent private chapel with the blare of a TV set.” These are fascinating walks. Julius has a philosopher’s eye for detail and nuance; he is a restless spirit chasing his soul’s shadow. He walks around with an attitude, bearing a rarefied, perhaps contrived air of a know-it-all scholar. In the process, a historian’s gaze falls heavy on New York, and we can say the city will never be the same again.

Cole wrote ‘Open City’ his way and let the book find its audience. This is an interesting, perhaps brilliant approach to writing a novel and sharing one’s ideas. It is a tough book to follow if you are a mere mortal like me with garden-variety brains; it is an acquired taste because it is too rich in erudition but I highly recommend it. It grows on you. Do keep your smartphone tuned to Google; you will need an explanation of virtually every other word. Even the title, ‘Open City’ is of historical significance, google it. There are all these influences that are alien to the reader, the mind keeps asking, who is so and so? Julius muses darkly, “In that sonic fugue, I recalled St Augustine, and his astonishment at St. Ambrose, who was reputed to have found a way to read without sounding out the words.” And the reader wonders: Who are these people and why are they reading to themselves?

In an important sense, ‘Open City’ amply demonstrates the failure of the book as a traditional vessel of expression to contain all the vibrant ideas of a brain on steroids. Each nanosecond in Julius’s over-stimulated life is a digital picture recorded with too much detail. Slices of history are disjointed in an eclectic way. The book as a medium of expression does Cole’s robust ideas an immense injustice. It fails magnificently to carry the weight of Cole’s ideas and brilliance. Endless are the possibilities; endless is the genius that radiates out of Cole’s brooding demons. I imagine the book’s next reincarnation as a digital experiment on the Internet with every word that I did not understand configured as a hot link to even more ideas, with the streets of Manhattan plotted and mapped out, in 3-D, as a restless Julius, afflicted with the Sokugo, treks from dawn to dusk. And no, I will not tell you what the Sokugo is. Google it.

Immigration and colourful civilisations ‘Open City’ is definitely a refreshing and eclectic departure from the usual immigrant-suffering-in-Babylon offering. Weaving in and out of different civilisations, pondering multiple intelligences, Julius fills the reader’s head with the philosophies of the West and the Orient. But then Africa rears its dark head in this book, and it is never good. One of the few philosophers of colour Julius can muster is a blind beggar in Nigeria turning sage-tricks for alms. Naipaul is smirking: I told you so. There are only a precious few characters in the book that can truly engage the narrator’s intelligence. There is Professor Saito, the Japanese American. There is Dr Annette Mailotte the Belgian; and there is Farouq the Middle Easterner obsessing about Palestine and Israel. ‘Open City’ should be required reading in the catacombs of the world’s foreign offices where intellectuals and civil servants plot the next arcane law to throw at the truly dispossessed caught in that river of crocodiles called immigration. Through Julius, Cole captures the futility of the movement of people, races, civilisations, trees, bees, bed bugs, any and everything, even the air.

Through all this, Julius is a walking enigma. He obsesses and reflects with compassion on the history of savagery and injustice. However, when he is confronted with injustice in the present tense, especially concerning people of colour, he recoils with cutting indifference. Julius describes the journey of a black immigrant asylum seeker facing deportation with rich whiffs of incredulity, as if he is reading a third rate child-soldier story written by a third rate African writer turning story tricks for quick bucks. You wonder if he believes this warrior. He recoils from meaningful contact and discourse with the world’s downtrodden, less fortunate fellow immigrants: asylum seekers, taxi drivers, dishwashers, and security men manning museums built for smug overbearing intellectuals. Each time an African immigrant reaches out to him, he rejects the hand with cloying condescension. Who are these people? Surely they also have their own stories.

Interestingly, to me, the most moving and profound words in the book were uttered by an African American poet toiling inside a US post office as a clerk. He tries to engage an unimpressed Julius intellectually by sharing a poem: “We are the ones who received the boot. We, who are used for loot, trampled underfoot. Unconquered. We, who carry the crosses. Yes, see? Our kith and our kin used like packhorses, We of the countless horrific losses. Assailed by the forces, robbed of choices, silenced voices. And still unconquered. You feel me? For four hundred and fifty years. Five centuries of tears, aeons of fears. Yet, still we remain, we remain, we remain the unconquered.” Deep words, still, Julius’s words drip with condescension as he describes the poet as one “moved by his own words.” He makes “a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.” Naipaul would be proud of this.

Julius seems to have issues with his own identity and Africans. In talking about Nigeria, he alludes to another world, almost unspoken, as if with embarrassment (“my mind went to a hunting party flushing rabbits out of their holes”). As an aside, Cole’s book does not come with robust notes, appendices, and keys for explaining all those great Western writers and philosophers and classical musicians that Julius knows and delights in showing off on every page of his restless walk. Cole expects the reader to know these people or do the research. Contrast that with how Nigerian writers painstakingly provide helpful annotations, detailed footnotes and apologetic explanations for egusi, ofensala, ogbono, Rex Lawson, ogogoro, Gabriel Okara, Buchi Emecheta, etc. I do love Cole’s approach; let the reader do the research. African writers please take note; let your Western customers do the research.

Mimicry, narcissism and the Other ‘Open City’ wittingly or unwittingly dissects the duplicity and dishonesty of the intellectual of colour. Cole meticulously charts the lives of immigrants as they plod through the journey that is their life, this relentless movement that is coldly called immigration. However, Julius does not invest time in the dispossessed. He has strong opinions on what happened to them, not on what is happening to them. He finds natural kinship in those who have strong voices and opinions and who deploy them to whining about their lot as the Other. Their identification as the Other is for them an inconvenience to be branded as racism, bigotry, etc. It loosens liberal wallets and sells books. We come in full contact with the narcissism and arrogance that blind and bind the views of many intellectuals of colour, and present their vision as the bible.

Julius is a narcissistic bundle of contradictions. He is indifferent to a cripple at a stop light; and when he reflects on his breakup with his girlfriend, it is clinical – and it is a function of his narcissism that his girlfriend’s character is half-formed, inchoate. There is only room for one person in this relationship. His observation of the physically disabled leads him to an interesting musing about Obatala, the closest that Julius comes to reflecting on the deep, rich philosophy and mythologies of the land of his ancestry According to Julius, Obatala is “the demiurge charged by Olodumare with the formation of humans from clay. Obatala did well at the task until he started drinking. As he drank more and more, he became inebriated, and began to fashion damaged human beings. The Yoruba believe that in this drunken state he made dwarfs, cripples, people missing limbs, and those burdened with debilitating illness. Olodumare had to reclaim the role he had delegated and finish the creation of humankind himself and, as a result, people who suffer from physical infirmities identify themselves as worshippers of Obatala. This is an interesting relationship with a god, one not of affection or praise but of antagonism. They worship Obatala in accusation: it is he who has made them as they are. They wear white, which is his colour, and the colour of the palm wine he got drunk on.” We are all Obatala’s children.

Deconstructing the book and us The book exposes the savagery of civilised societies, built for and populated by savages. As one of the characters says about the fate of Native Americans, “it’s a difficult thing to live in a country that has erased your past.” Let me warn the reader again; this is one dense book, busy with issues on every page, absolutely nothing bothering mankind escapes Julius’s eyes: racism, global warming, Idi Amin, Ugandan Indians, Japanese American internment camps, bedbugs, birds, immigration, sexuality, date rape, the Palestinian question, Zionism, 9-11, the pace is dizzying and manic.

Chapter Eight is prophetic in how it almost foretells the Mideast uprising. It is deeply profound, with some strong but refreshingly bold opinions. The novel is relentlessly dismal, apocalyptic even in the past tense. Moving was Cole’s depiction of savagery and brutality in Nigeria’s boarding schools as he depicted Julius’s life as a boy at the Nigerian Military School. Although the narration is almost clinical, the author somehow pulls it off.

In Open City, the reader is turned into a psychiatrist and the mind becomes the couch. Julius talks nonstop, sometimes, it is numbing. However, once you get past the narcissistic self-absorption of the main character and his sidekicks, ‘Open City’ reveals itself as an important book, offering profound insights into a changing world. It is not nearly enough though: He browses past Harlem, not much going on there, as Naipaul would say, not much civilisation here, no thinkers to engage. Julius sees karma in the demise of companies like Blockbuster (a video rental chain) but there is little analysis where it matters as to how and why, and the effect of globalisation. Here, opinions are informed, one suspects, by a left-leaning liberal ideology: “They had made their profits and their names by destroying smaller, earlier local businesses.” There is a valuable lesson here. Julius walks nonstop meeting people and issues and expressing disdain for positions taken. His attitude is a quiet, perhaps overly enthusiastic evangelical rebuke of anti-curiosity and anti-intellectuality.

Loving and hating Julius I loved Julius, I hated Julius. He is a Walter Mitty character, a creep even. Julius is eclectic, some would say too eager to appear so, precise, almost anally-retentive. He knows his Chopin, Bach partitas, Beethoven sonatas and Shostakovich symphonies by heart. The peasant reader asks: Who are these people that Julius knows on a last-name basis? Who is Veláquez? Gilles Deleuze? Gaston Bachelard? Paul Claude? Julius comes across as a caricature of the African intellectual schooled in Western ways and loudly wearing his intellect like a pimp overwhelmed by his loud clothes. I estimate that Julius would need to have lived three productive lifetimes to acquire all the education and erudition he displays. Or lived one sad lifetime immersed in the study of Western books, classical music, art and architecture. I could not follow the streets of New York as Julius mapped them. I could not imagine them, the grid, the life, the noise, Julius seems entombed in the cloying clammy coldness of his thoughts. Sometimes, the novel reads like the thinly veiled autobiography of someone with several unresolved personal issues. It is hard not to imagine Julius as Cole.

Western reviewers have been generous in their praise of Cole’s book although some, desperate to share the same rarefied intellectual space that Cole apparently lives in, have gone overboard in the manufacture of inane babble-speak. Their disconnectedness from the lived experience in Nigeria is amusing and sad. There is a piece about a crime in the book that deeply disturbs and rattles the perspectives of a number of Western reviewers. Moralities are assumed to be universal across the seas; there is no discussion as to the context in the society that Julius came from.

Julius, bedbugs and the identity question This book is really about identity, starting with the question, who really is Julius? As he is being beaten by two thugs in a New York neighbourhood, Julius is musing philosophical thoughts. Who does that? Julius is many things. He has an exaggerated sense of his own importance in the world. And New York flicks him off like a bedbug. New York is not Lagos. Sometimes, for Julius, the world is a cold museum housing mummified remains of the past. I can almost smell the formaldehyde. The introspection is contrived, overwrought in most places. It is as if Cole was determined to empty his history, philosophy and art textbooks in the bowels of the novel. Some would argue that Julius is pretentious. Sometimes, details seem contrived. Julius can tell the species of birds dotting the skies high up above. His knowledge of classical music is encyclopedic; he knows dogs apart by breed.

He is dismissive of jazz: “Too often, it merely sounded sweet to me, cloying even, and I especially disliked it as background music.” Julius on classical music: “I returned to my browsing, moving from bin to bin, from reissues of Shostakovich symphonies played by long-forgotten Soviet regional orchestras to Chopin recitals by fresh-faced Van Clyburn Competition runners-up…” He is eclectic, some would say too eager to appear so: “I recognised the recording as the famous one conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1964. With that awareness came another: that all I had to do was bide my time, and wait for the emotional core of the work, which Mahler had put in the final movement of the symphony, I sat… and sank into reverie, and followed Mahler through drunkenness, longing, bombast, youth (with its fading) and beauty (with its fading). Then came the final movement, “Der Abschied,” the Farewell and Mahler, where he would ordinarily indicate the tempo, had marked it schwer, difficult.”

Open City is a mostly complex work of art that invites varied interpretations, a compressed book of books. No knowledge escapes Julius’s hyper-restless mind. He reminds the readers of the minutest detail. For instance he notes that in 1903, when Dr. Charles A. Campbell performed experiments on the bedbug cimex lectularius, he found that “bedbugs survived four months of isolation on a table in a sea of kerosene without food, they came through a deep freeze lasting 244 hours without being harmed, and were able to remain alive underwater for an indefinite period of time. The cunning of these insects… is remarkable and it appears that they have, to a certain extent, the power of reasoning. He described an experiment by Mr. N. P. Wright of San Antonio… in which, as Wright moved his bed farther and farther from the sides of the room, the bedbugs climbed up the wall to the precise height from which they could jump and land on him.”

Vladimir Nabokov and Teju Cole Random House has urged readers and reviewers to compare Open City with the works of Joseph O’Neill, Zadie Smith, W. G. Sebald and J. M. Coetzee. Cole certainly has had lots of literary influences. An intriguing, perhaps more appropriate influence would be Vladimir Nabokov. Literary scholars of literature would do well to study, compare and contrast Nabokov’s ‘Pnin’ with Cole’s ‘Open City’. There are great parallels between Pnin and Julius. Charles Poore, writing in the New York Times in 1957, noted that Pnin “is a comedy of academic manners in a romantically disenchanted world. The central character… becomes a sardonic commentary on the civilisation that produced him… an émigré of the old Russian school. He is tremendously proud of his American citizenship, enchanted with the glittering gadgetry of our culture, lonely, loquacious and heroic. He teaches classic Russian literature at Waindell… one of those small colleges whose existence is doing so much these days to add to America’s bulging store of scholarly satires.” Poore could have been talking about Cole’s Julius, the similarities are eerie. When talking about an African character Kenneth who wants to identify with him (“I am African just like you”), Julius gets irritated: “I felt a little sorry for him and the desperation in his prattle.” Sounds like what Pnin would have said.

Naipaul, Soyinka, Achebe, Said, these writers described the rage of the condition of people of colour. And each in his own way rejected the condition he found himself in. Cole has written a memorable book in the first person. It has been classified as a work of fiction even though there are parallels to his lived life. Avoiding the categorisation of ‘memoir’ allows Cole to ditch responsibility for the protagonist’s views and judgments. I wonder what he really thinks about these things. We may never know.

Of Biafra, Roses, Bullets and Valium

The other day, Adunni my trusty iPad bought me Roses and Bullets, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s new book on the Nigerian civil war. I don’t know, iPads should not be this powerful; Adunni has unfettered access to my bank account and she is always buying me books off the Internet. I wish she would buy me books that engage and entertain me like a good bottle of cognac VSOP. I won’t lie, reading Adimora-Ezeigbo’s latest offering was pure torture. The book sent me to sleep each time I opened it on Adunni’s Kindle. I stopped reading it halfway; I won’t be back to it. Life is too short to be miserable.  I tried, I really did, but I could not get past the clinical aridity of this book. This is one deadly boring book. Reading it makes watching paint dry an exhilarating experience.

Why did I stop reading the book? Well, it reads like a neatly typed, fastidiously edited memorandum penned by a humorless civil servant who is used to writing government white papers for the Kremlin. It is relentlessly edited, stripped of every conceivable emotion, with every joy of reading wrung and bleached out of every word until the reader’s eyes beg for sleep – or death. This book should be an instrument of torture in police stations. The victim will confess to an imaginary crime just to be allowed to rest. I kept rubbing my eyes and falling asleep. All insomniacs should skip Valium and buy this book; they will be cured. This tome is borne on stilted clinical prose, a meandering tale that seems reluctant to make a point, any point.

Why was this book written? What new insights does it offer on the Nigerian civil war? How does this book improve upon the silence? Other than it is about the Nigerian civil war, I have no idea what the reader should take away from this book. The clinical antiseptic prose violently strips the novel of ambiance or atmosphere. I could not imagine Biafra; I could not imagine Nigeria, not with this book. Not even the mention of Kingsway Supermarket could drag me back to those years. Any writer worth his or her salt should be able to describe the unique smell of Kingsway and bring tears to the eyes of memory. The Nigerian civil war was a unique era, a sad time in our history that requires an expert hand to capture  the sights, smells, and songs of that horrid period.

This plodding overweight non-story suffers from a poor design, well, actually from no design; it does not lay the context for the story and anyone new to the horrors of Biafra is well advised to go elsewhere first. There is no over-arching vision, and the characters are so inchoate and forgettable, I cannot remember any of them, can’t tell them apart. And this brings me to my pet peeve. Adimora-Ezeigbo goes to great lengths to italicize and explain indigenous terms like ikpi nku, chinchin, ube, udara, etc, I imagine in a bid to reach and keep a wider audience beyond her clan. I have a huge problem with this habit among African writers. They all need a healthy dose of self-confidence. In their works they are always italicizing egusi and ugali. I say, tell your story; stop italicizing our way of life. Let the reader do the research. Besides that is what Google is for. I have never seen sauerkraut in italics.

The Nigerian Civil War is a hugely important topic and it is a crying shame that many Nigerians have no idea of the enormity of that horror that visited us.  A search on “Nigeria Biafra” on yielded hundreds of hits. Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a good book for those who want to read everything about what Roses and Bullets is not about. I have a review of it here. There are many contentious issues that Adichie brings up – and there is no shortage of robust debate about them. That is what a book should do. Dan Obi Auduche also has a helpful bibliography of eighty books on the Biafran war here. Adichie’s book has a helpful reference list of thirty books. Where Awduche’s list is focused on books directly about the war, Adichie’s has a broader focus. Virtually all the books directly on the war on Adichie’s list are also on Awduche’s list. It would have been helpful to see the reference list Adimora-Ezeigbo drew upon for her research. My favorite essay on Biafra by the way is My Biafran Eyes by Okey Ndibe, that irrepressible owner of words. You may feast on it freely on Guernica here.

And oh, by the way, Roses and Bullets was published in Nigeria by Jalaa Writers Collective. Do not bother clicking on the link, the website of this publishing house has been suspended. Are we a serious people or what? And no, this is not a review, but a rant expressing my frustration that Adunni wasted my money on a dreadful book. There… I feel better. So tell me, I would dearly love to hear suggestions from my readers on useful resources on the Nigerian civil war. Do you have any? Why do you like it? Share…

Helon Habila and The Hunt for the African Short Story

Adunni my iPad just bought me an e-book, “The Granta Book of the African Short Story” published by Granta and edited by the Nigerian writer Helon Habila. The book’s “Introduction” written by Habila alone is worth the price of the book. Adunni is happy. I am happy. It is an engaging, cerebral, thoughtful and comprehensive treatise on the short story form as practiced by African writers. Habila starts out with this bold salvo: “I often attend lectures and conferences where some distinguished speaker will give a talk on African literature that, to my disappointment, if not surprise, begins and ends with Things Fall Apart, as if nothing has been written in Africa since 1958. In this collection, I want to bring things up to date and present my own generation, usually referred to as ‘the third generation of African writers’, who, until now, have rarely been anthologized. To put them in perspective, I have also selected a few influential and representative first- and second-generation writers to stand alongside their artistic descendants. My hope is to capture the range and complexity of African short fiction since independence, highlighting the dominant thematic and stylistic shifts over the decades.”

It is an ambitious statement pregnant with audacious claims. It is true that Achebe is revered worldwide to the point of undignified fawning. In September, this year, I attended the Garden City Literary Festival in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. I had a wonderful time. The theme was Politics and Literature. Chinua Achebe’s spirit was everywhere, his venerable face was piped in by video all the way from America and he gave a speech. We must have given every word a standing ovation. The son gave yet another speech on his behalf – flanked by a long row of old writers (of previous dispensations) waiting their turn at the high table to speechify. Young writers cooled their heels in the audience only to be dutifully trotted out for photo-ops. However, Achebe is not as over-exposed as the troika of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila and Binyavanga Wainaina. They are the ones called upon by the Western literary establishment each time something needs to be said about ‘African literature.” It seems the case these days that Westerners think that African literature begins and ends with this hugely talented trio, It is a problem. I also dispute the notion that African short stories of Habila’s generation are rarely anthologized; their stories fill anthologies, many of them poorly edited, alas.

The book brings to the fore the debate about who defines what is an African story. It is interesting; the contemporary writers in this collection are virtually all writers in the Diaspora and as Habila freely admits, influential in determining what is African literature. To the extent that there is practically no one writing from inside the continent, it is presumptuous to declare this collection representative of African short stories. Habila’s work is an important collection that documents the heavy, perhaps undue influence African writers in the Diaspora wield in shaping the face of the African story. This influence has been amplified by globalization, the digital age, and the near collapse of traditional publishing in Africa. If this trend is not arrested, we will be living witnesses to the distortion of the history and face of African literature by Western patrons with the unwitting cooperation of influential star writers like Habila. It does not have to be so.

In the essay, Habila coins an interesting term – “post-nationalist” to describe today’s African writers: “My use of the term ‘post-nationalist’ is aspirational. I see this new generation as having the best potential to liberate itself from the often predictable, almost obligatory obsession of the African writer with the nation and with national politics, an obsession that at times has been beneficial to African writing, but more often has been restrictive and confining to the African writer’s ambition.” Tom Begg writing here on September 16, 2011 in the Think Africa Press disagrees: “In spite of Habila’s bold words in the introduction, many of the stories in the collection are concerned with regional and national issues, looking to the continent’s blighted history or current social problems.” The book does feature several stories that have been previously published elsewhere by the contemporary writers; many readers will recognize the pieces from previous encounters. If I don’t read Adichie’s “The Arrangers of Marriage” again ever, I will be perfectly fine.

The collection pits new writers like Adichie and EC Osondu against writers of old like Camara Laye and Alex La Guma. Habila’s vision was to track the arc of African writing from the pre-colonial to the present. Habila provides a rationale for the theme and design of the anthology: “I eventually decided to order these stories generationally, starting with the youngest writer and ending with the oldest, the intention being to showcase the newest writing from the continent first, before moving back in time to show what came before that, as that is what these younger writers must have grown up reading.” I am not sure this was a successful experiment. It is impossible to tell when the new ends and the old begins. It would have been more useful to rank the stories according to when they were written to get a good sense of the trajectory and the times. To follow Habila’s logic, if the octogenarian Gabriel Okara writes a short story based on today’s Nigeria (he is still writing), his story would belong at the end of the book. That makes absolutely no sense. I would have partitioned the writing in sections by the era in which the stories were written.

The Nigerian writer Tolu Ogunlesi also reviewed the collection in the UK Independent here. Ogunlesi asks crucial questions about what our writers are preoccupied with and who determines what an African story is. Ogunlesi lists the themes in the collection as predictable staples of African stories: “Recurring themes include exile, return-from-exile…slum-dwelling, arranged marriages, and the antics of sexually exploitative tourists…” He reacts to Habila’s work with a gentle sigh: “Conspicuous by its absence in this collection is the internet. Not a single person is to be found Googling or sending emails. Mobile phones show up only a handful of times, although in the Africa of the 21st century, Russian Kalashnikovs have largely given way to Chinese mobile phones.” When I said the same thing here upon reading the offerings on the shortlist for the 2011 Caine Prize; many aggrieved writers and their friends threw pity parties in which my backside was the fillet mignon du jour. I simply said: “The stories are so ancient, it is a wonder they did not feature smoke signals and slide rules…there is not a single mention of the Internet and cell phones, not once. Outside of the destructive force of organized religion, wars and diseases, the Internet and cell phone technology are the most powerful forces in the ongoing restructuring of African communities.” To be fair to Habila, many new readers would enjoy and could use the exposure to writers of old like Camara Laye, Alex La Guma and the irreverent Dambudzo Marechera. Habila’s collection is eclectic in how he introduces the reader to older African literature. However, it is instructive that readers and reviewers are having difficulty telling contemporary works apart from those of the older writers. Again, the question: Do the contemporary writers featured in this anthology truly represent the depth and breath of African short story writing? Let me propose again that to the extent that they are used over and over again as yardsticks for what is African literature, the history and trajectory of African writing are being distorted by an influential but over-exposed few.

I do admire what institutions like Granta and the Caine Prize have done for African literature, in collaboration with many star African writers like Habila, Adichie and Binyavanga Wainaina. There is a tiny minority of influential writers out there (and Habila is one) who are in a position to determine the direction of African writing. They must be supported and encouraged – to do the right thing. The Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah has a useful review of the collection in here. She observes that with this collection Habila seems to have engineered a reunion of Caine Prize winners: “… almost half of the writers here (including Habila himself) have come to prominence either by winning or being shortlisted for the award… It is no coincidence that the Caine writers are among the best known from Africa. This raises the perennial question of the nature of African literary production that has preoccupied the continent’s critics and thinkers since the first African writers were published in the west.” Gappah is on to something here. Of the twelve Caine Prize winners since its inception in 2000, seven of them, two finalists and a Caine Prize judge are represented in this volume: Leila Aboulela (2000) Helon Habila (2001), Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Brian Chikwava (2004), Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008), EC Osondu (2009) Olufemi Terry (2010); Doreen Baingana (Caine finalist), Laila Lalami (Caine finalist); Aminatta Forna (Caine Prize judge). Then there is Adichie, Uwem Akpan, etc. They are all friends known to each other. Calling this a reunion is more generous than what comes to my mind – cronyism.

Habila is appreciative and respectful of the muscle of the Internet in shaping literary discourse: “With the coming of the Internet to many parts of urban Africa in the late 1990s, a new avenue for publishing was discovered and the African short story finally began to get its long-overdue moment of recognition. The traditional publishing landscape, with its excessive restrictions, was suddenly superseded. The Internet is today doing what the newspapers and magazines did to the development of the short story in Europe and America at the start of the industrial age.” I agree absolutely. Contrary to contemporary lamentations, the social media and the Internet are making compulsive readers out of consumers all over the world. Writers and traditional publishers should stop reacting to this phenomenon like oil on water. They should embrace this new democratization of our literature; we will all flourish materially and spiritually as a result. There are many talented new voices writing amazing stuff on the Internet and elsewhere; there should be a process for accessing, nurturing and collating their important works.

At the end of his essay, Habila muses: “… before settling on a particular story, I would ask myself a simple question: ten years from now, would this story illuminate the preoccupations and concerns, literary and social, of the times in which it was written?” Time will tell, but the reviewers seem eager to confine this volume to mulch, because in their view, Habila’s eloquent and bold vision does not match the product. We are making progress and Habila is part of that grand march to the light. Someday we will laugh at memories of times when Western benefactors enthralled by the notion that Africans can actually write pretty things reacted with the glee of scientists discovering that chimps can actually use twigs as implements – to scratch their backsides. The challenge is to force them to change the paradigm of patronage and stereotype – of paying African writers generously to say the same thing over and over again, even in the face of mounting evidence that things have changed. So… who tells our story? Africa is undergoing an exciting renaissance in the arts especially in literature. These exciting new writers are easy to find; just go on the Internet and you can feast on their magical words for free. Institutions like Granta, the Caine Prize and Western literary patrons should use their considerable resources to reach out to these emerging writers. They would be pleasantly surprised. In the meantime, the search for the elusive authentic African writer continues in full force. Habila reminds us of Dambudzo Marechera’s contempt for that elusive African animal: “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.”