Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: These things around our necks

First published July 26, 2009 in Next Newspapers. Reproduced here for archival purposes only.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest work, The Thing Around Your Neck is a mostly delectable feast of twelve short stories. This is a good book, I heartily recommend it. Adichie has a great gift: she is the nettlesome sibling from hell, sitting there demurely and ever so sweetly, painstakingly pointing out all the pimples on your beautiful face. Subversion lurks every where in Adichie’s stories. The resentments, the rage, the anger, smooth like refined sugar bleed gleefully out of Adichie’s stories and we are all sweetly diminished. When the stories are good, they are like elegant buses, gently letting you off at the curb of Wonder and easing back into traffic carrying their mysterious burdens to somewhere. The reader is left behind wondering about these things around the neck.

Maybe I am suffering from Adichie overdose, but Adichie is becoming fairly predictable to me. I can now recognize her stories even in the dark. The thing wrapped tightly within Adichie starts slowly at the beginning of each story and rises with quiet, oh so quiet indignation and gently retches all over everyone. What do I think of the stories? The title story The Thing Around Your Neck is formulaic and improbable in parts. But it is okay, it is still a good story. The story The Arrangers of Marriage is about a woman joining the husband (a medical doctor) in America in an arranged marriage. I had previously read it somewhere. I enjoyed it again especially when I came to my favorite lines: “My husband woke me up by settling his heavy body on top of mine. His chest flattened my breasts.” After two readings, it is still a funny story. However, The Arrangers of Marriage risks being stereotypical and improbable. But it is the truth. The Shivering is an intimate dialogue with heartache and suffering in the shape of two gentle souls talking through their losses ease the reader into the mysteries of sexuality and religion. A couple of stories break new ground on gay and lesbian issues in Nigeria. Adichie’s stories remind us that we are still dipping our squeamish toes in the sum-pool of our sexuality.  Some of the stories in this book do come across as dated, especially the ones about immigrant life in America. In America no one gawks at my nappy hair anymore, few people ask me where I learned to speak English, I definitely do not remember anyone asking me lately if I had ever seen a car before I came to America. It is a good thing; America is browning and now we are the ones asking the silly questions.

Adichie is becoming afflicted with a keen sensitivity that she wears loudly on the skin. It is a double edged sword. In the story Jumping Monkey Hill about an encounter with a patronizing and condescending white professor, there is this aching over-awareness of the self and it unnecessarily politicizes Adichie’s stories. There is the over-analysis of people and their motives. Injustice sprays a mist on the writer’s skin, making the writer hyper-sensitive. Sometimes things happen. There are assholes in every culture. Adichie’s stories are populated by mostly male Nigerian jerks. Which begs the question: How much of our intolerance for our own assholes is really self-loathing? Self loathing is fast becoming an African obsession. Our lives are carefully and painstakingly measured against a lily-white otherness. We are always falling short and the neediness fuels our neurosis. The danger of this compilation of stories – is that it comes off as a narrow look at the lives of complex people. It may be the truth; Adichie may have drawn hasty conclusions. How much of this is Adichie’s fault? We will never know; exaggeration is a useful tool in storytelling. And Adichie wields this tool expertly.

 I hate to say this, but when it comes to short stories, Adichie is no Jhumpa Lahiri. Where Lahiri offers crisp freshly minted prose in every piece of her latest short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, Adichie is uneven, delivering stories that range from the stodgy (The American Embassy) to the truly inspiring (The Headstrong Historian). What emphasizes the unevenness of Adichie’s stories is that the book is actually a compilation of several past works, an archival of sorts. All in all, This Thing Around Your Neck is really about our shared injustice colluding to distort our history. This book is a humanized narrative that is deeply affective – for the most part. Enjoy the book; it is life staring at you.

What Dele Olojede owes us next

The respected journalist Olatunji Dare, former chair of the editorial board of Nigeria’s Guardian newspapers, writing in the Nation Newspaper recently, reflected on the promise and frustration that was the  defunct Next newspaper ( What’s next for NEXT?)  For many of us who had worked for Next, Dare’s words were bitter-sweet and caused quite a stir. His observations properly situated Next as a pioneer in 21st century Nigerian journalism:

“When it made its debut in December 2008, NEXT was only as an electronic newspaper.  A paper edition would be introduced in August 2009. Audio and video would come later.  But even as an electronic newspaper, its entry into Nigerian journalism was electrifying. The web design was clean, tidy and well-structured. Colour and space and type meshed to produce a visual delight. The site was fully navigable. The reporting was sharp… The headlines were sober; they did not scream at you nor offend your sensibilities. The writing was clean, crisp and lucid. The editorials were magisterial; thoughtfully and closely argued, they provided insight and leadership on a wide range of issues, national and foreign. Shortly after its debut, NEXT was parading some of the finest writing to have graced Nigeria’s news media in recent memory.”

Dare’s essay was a nice ode to Dele Olojede, the complicated thinker and doer who had dreamed of Next and implemented one of the most exciting runs in the history of Nigerian journalism. Olojede’s place in Nigeria’s history is assured, thanks to respected icons like Dare, history will be kind to him. Indeed Olojede was able to bring to fruition his pioneering dreams and those of quiet and largely unsung leaders like Ekundayo Ogunyemi (Naijanet)  Muhtar Bakare, Sola Osofisan, Philip Adekunle, Nnorom Azuonye and Omoyele Sowore who long ago saw the digital world as an opportunity and a bridge to bring together all our story tellers and stories in one huge digital playground.

I appreciate the kind words Dare had for many of us who were privileged to have been part of that journey that was Next. I will be forever grateful to Next and my editor Molara Wood for the opportunity to exorcise my demons and practice my craft and for the exposure to a wide reading audience well beyond my wildest imagination. In the beginning of my tenure as a columnist, Next was generous to me and gave me wide latitude to write about any and everything that suited my fancy.  My three years at Next have been the most productive in my writing life and I give Olojede and Next full credit for allowing all that to happen.

Having said all that, many of us were treated poorly as employees of Next. There were clearly management issues, many of them so egregious, in a real country, they would have landed Next’s owners in big trouble. It is easy to google and come up with evidence such as this, this and this  Dare’s article confirmed in me that for yet another Nigerian leader, the hunter’s version of history was going to whitewash the real history. It is a cultural dysfunction I suppose, one of our weaknesses as a people is to exaggerate the positives in a leader and minimize or gloss over his or her frailties. I am now convinced that the next phase in the struggle for the life and soul of our nation is to hold our intellectual and political elite accountable. They are getting away with murder literally. Without accountability, they have become self-absorbed and tone-deaf to reason.

Back to Olojede, the mystery and the power of the Internet that Olojede tapped into allowed him to harness resources everywhere and in many cases bring some young people home from Europe and America to Nigeria.  In my three years with Next, I never met Olojede, did not need to. My editor Molara Wood handled all my affairs pretty much; she went to great pains to make sure I was comfortable. However, after a few months it became apparent that there were some issues with funding. Wood wrote to me one day to say apologetically that my weekly contract amount was being reduced by management. It was unilateral; there was no offer to renegotiate my contract. I was fine and soldiered on, I really did not care that much even when the long delays in payment became indeterminable; as far as I knew they would pay up eventually. There were never any assurances from management that they were aware that we were not being paid.

After a protracted period of time, I finally contacted management by email to complain about the nonpayment and the silence and to express disappointment that no one had reached out to me to talk about the issues. I never heard from anyone. Instead, Wood informed me with concern that management had decided to stop paying columnists; I was free to continue writing but it would be without pay. To say I was appalled by such unprofessional conduct would be to understate it. By this time, Next was owing me hundreds of thousands of Naira.  At the time, It seemed to reek of arrogance and a callous disregard for the welfare of employees. When my editor left Next, I did not have the heart to continue staying there and so I left. To this day, I cannot brag about getting a single email from Olojede or Next’s management regarding my tenure or the huge sum I am owed. Olojede would not have accepted such irresponsible conduct from his employers in the United States.

I was extremely lucky; many others had taken huge financial risks to go work for Next. And suddenly they were being told unceremoniously to take a hike. I am still haunted by the terror I saw in some of those folks’ eyes when I visited in September, 2011.  What Next did to those young people is unconscionable and Dele Olojede and I know that in the West where we all studied and lived, that would have been beyond acceptable, they would have sent him to the cleaners in a court of law.

Shabby treatment aside, nothing has upset me more than the fact that Olojede has recently allowed Next’s website to shut down. There is an emerging pattern here: Olojede seems to act unilaterally and imperiously; he seems allergic to the term stakeholder or what it means to communicate an action before implementation. The shutting down of Next’s website is unconscionable and unacceptable. Over the years that Next was in existence, the website gathered several pieces of significance nationally and globally, pieces that are now connected to external websites as resources through hyperlinks. All those links are now broken thanks to Olojede’s decision to shut down the website. I shall be blunt; Dele Olojede’s decision to shut down Next’s website is irresponsible; it is not that expensive to keep a website going. More importantly, many of us who had hoped to have access to our column pieces are now struggling mostly in vain to recreate our works. We should have been given ample warning ahead to time to allow us retrieve our column pieces. This is simply unacceptable and I am happy to call Olojede on this this conduct more than any other management deficiencies of his. It is abusive, it is wrong, it is irresponsible. Mr. Olojede, I ask you to bring back the Next website by all means necessary

Olojede’s mistakes, and they are legion have only inspired the West and others to continue to lionize him. Last year he won the prestigious John P. McNulty Award  for “running a 24-hour newsroom on diesel generators.” The prize was a hefty $100,000. African exotica sells in the West. Let me observe ad nauseam that Africa’s political and intellectual elite would benefit from not being held accountable by the masses they purport to serve – and by an avuncular West too eager to give them a pass on even their most egregious acts of misconduct. The next frontier in the struggle for Africa’s emancipation is for us to turn the glare of accountability on our own leaders. It is important to share the great and the unsavory in our leaders. It holds them accountable and serves also as a guiding beacon for those who will come after them. I was not privy to the inner management workings of the newspaper but clearly money was an issue in addition to what many have analyzed as poor management. And so Next’s fate is also a commentary on what should be merely an expense in the interest of a society. I am not a fan of external interventions, but I would have applauded the West if they had helped sustain Next. Memo to the West: The cost of an unmanned drone would have kept Next alive for eternity and propelled Nigeria to a new planet in accountability.  My conclusion? Dele Olojede may be a visionary but he hurt many people and a good start would be for him to apologize to them. He should also restore the Next website as a matter of top priority And Olojede, you do not owe me any money, I have written it all off, don’t worry. Not that you are staying up worrying about it. But this you owe the world; turn on the Next website again. That would be nice.

Christopher Okigbo’s Voice

First published in Next newspapers, March 13, 2011. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

The late great Christopher Okigbo once said of his poems’ similarities to other people’s works: “It is surprising how many lines of my Limits I am not sure are mine and yet do not know whose lines they were originally. But does it matter?” I think it matters. A while back on Next, the poet Chimalum Nwankwo offered evidence that Okigbo had plagiarized some of his poems. He quoted Carl Sandberg’s poem, For You: “The peace of great doors be for you./Wait at the knobs, at the panel oblongs./Wait for the great hinges.//The peace of great churches be for you./Where the players of loft pipe organs/Practice old lovely fragments, alone//The peace of great books be for you,/Stains of pressed clover leaves on pages,/Bleach of the light of years held in leather.//The peace of great prairies be for you./Listen among windplayers in cornfields./The wind learning over its oldest music.”

He contrasted it with Okigbo’s The Passage: “O Anna at the knobs of the panel oblong,/Hear us at the crossroads at the great hinges/Where the players of loft pipe organs/Rehearse old lovely fragments, alone-//Strains of pressed orange leaves on pages/Bleach of the light of years held in leather://For we are listening in cornfields/Among the windplayers,/Listening to the wind leaning over/Its loveliest fragment….”

Nwankwo has been harshly criticized for his views, but he has a point. Many Nigerian thinkers that I greatly respect and admire point out Okigbo’s youth and observe that “derivation” of others’ works was common practice at the time. But then if someone had shown me Sandburg’s lines without attribution, I would have sworn that it was Okigbo’s voice. Which begs the question: How much of Okigbo’s voice is borrowed or “derived”? Derivation is nothing new. The late Ola Rotimi made it very clear that his play The Gods Are Not To Blame was an adaptation of the Greek mythology Oedipus Rex. Wole Soyinka has been careful to make the connections between his plays and external influences. So is Okigbo guilty of plagiarism? Yes, I agree with Nwankwo There is no attribution as far as I can tell; if there had been notes explaining this, it would be reasonable to see this as an experiment.

A poem is a spiritual journey undertaken by the poet-priest, a deeply personal journey that finds voice in poetry. If I was to take a renowned writer’s work and incorporate it into mine, I would be required by traditional conventions to cite the source. If I was to come up with a copy of it, using most of the language, without attribution, it is possible that it would speak to a reader as the original spoke to me. If the reader was to find out that indeed, this new story used language and themes virtually lifted (in Okigbo’s case, about 80 percent) from the original, the reader would feel a certain sense of disappointment. There would also be questions as to whether indeed the writer undertook that journey personally. There is a software out there that determines how much of a student’s work is similar to work out there. Okigbo’s piece would have been unacceptable today were it to have been submitted as original work, no ifs, no buts about it. More importantly, it raises reasonable questions in my mind about how much of the spiritual journeys in his works were his journeys. I think that is an important question.

Donatus Nwoga wrote an excellent paper on the subject titled Plagiarism and Authentic Creativity in West Africa. The paper showcases several other instances of plagiarism by Okigbo. Take this piece by Miguel Hernandez, the Spanish author of “El amor ascendia entre nosotros“: “ Love ascended between us like the/moon between two palms/that have never embraced;/Love passed like a moon between/us and ate our solitary bodies/ And we are two ghosts who seek one another/And meet afar off.

Here is Okigbo’s “Lament of the Lavender Mist”: “The moon has ascended between us—/Between two pines/That bow to each other;/Love with the moon has ascended,/Has fed on our solitary stem;/And we are now shadows/That cling to each other/But kiss the air only.

Here are lines from Alberto Quintero Alvarez: “What departs leaves on the shore/Gazing seawards at the star foreseen;/What arrives announces its farewell/Before a coming-and going that goes on for ever.

Here is Okigbo: “An old star departs, leaves us here on the shore/Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;/The new star appears, foreshadows its going/Before a going and coming that goes on forever…”

These pieces and several other instances in Nwoga’s excellent paper offer evidence of plagiarism; if it is “derivation”, it is actually poorly done, with little attempt at creativity. I believe my friends who assert that these forms of imitation were common practice at the time but it would be impossible to defend this conduct today. I am in awe of Okigbo and I doubt that the day will come when someone would convince me that he was anything less than a genius. But let’s call what he did by the real name: Plagiarism. And it matters, because it was wrong.

Guest Blog Post: Unoma Azuah Reviews Naija Stories Anthology

Colourful  Threads in the Nigerian Literary Fabric: A Review of Naija Stories by Unoma Azuah.

Naija Stories makes a rewarding read because a  sizable number of the stories in the anthology beam beyond the imperfections of the weaker stories. This collection adds a unique design to the tapestry that makes up the layout of the Nigerian literary fabric. The stories renew our plush tradition of yarning and knitting of anecdotes.  The anthology is divided into four sections with the subtitles: Tears, Kisses, Heroes, and Villains. These subtitles pretty much represent the contents of the sections.

Stories that beam with the brilliance of precision, include, “Blame it on a Yellow Dress,” “Showdown at Rowe Park,” and “One Sunday Morning in Atlanta,” among others.  These stories glitter with vigour. “Blame it on the Yellow Dress,” explores incest. It reveals how a father sexually abuses his young daughter. The writer makes the reader empathize with the main character, and effectively rouses our anger and succeeds at evoking our sense of pathos. “Showdown at Rowe Park,” chronicles the conflicts of secondary school students. It is quite a simple story, rich with humour with a well-developed suspense.  Though the language is near banal, the writer is able to capture the mood and setting in a way that effectively enhances the theme of the story.  He is further able to make such a familiar story, especially to Nigerians that can identify with life in secondary school, vivid and definitive.

 “One Sunday Morning in Atlanta,” is another engaging story in the collection. Though some actions in the story are called to question when it comes to verisimilitude. For instance, the strong influence the protagonist’s mother has on him, seems rather  far-fetched  and the childish altercation  between the protagonist and his sister in the church makes one wonder if they are adults or teenagers.  Nevertheless,   the gradual build-up of the story makes it more convincing. The paradox in the fact that the protagonist, while in a club, dancing and socializing, could not get the attention of a girl he wants, but was able to get her into his house through the guise of evangelism adds a plus to the account because it makes the story emblematically charged.  Additionally, the writer’s ability to lay bare the contrasts of Nigerian idiosyncrasy and  American exclusive traits heightens his effectual use of wit.

The very first story in the collection, however, sends discouraging signals to the reader. The premise of “A Glimpse in the Mirror,” falls flat because its theme of death is redundant and melodramatic.  Qualifying it within the context of a meal or a broth makes it taste like an over-salted soup. The central character, a coffin maker, loses all the father figures in his life and ends up losing his life as well.  The sardonicism in the fact that one of his customers wants a plane-coffin for his late mother who had always wanted to enter a plane, but never did, almost elevates the story.  But this boost fizzles out because that is all we see of this secondary character in the story.  There is no employment of variety in the story’s mode of delivery—no humour, no suspense and no re-channeled digression. Stories with the three E’s are always a pleasure to encounter: entertainment, education and expansion of one’s scope of life.  As Stephen Minot puts it, “When you turn from literary non-fiction to fiction you cut the tether with the truth.”

My hope for the three E’s dimmed as I read from the first section towards the last section. Some of the contributors to the anthology are amateur writers who have little or no idea of what a short story should be.  Hence, brevity among other flaws becomes a challenge. For instance, the story, “Can I Please Kill You,” is a mere didactic story about abortion. The story does not achieve much except attempt to sell a moral. The emphasis is on the fact that the protagonist decides not to go through with an abortion, while a nurse who is symbolic of ethical precursor praises the character for her wise decision. There is nothing crisp in the story’s structure, theme or style. Another story that does not succeed at its rendition is “Seeing off Kisses.” It drifts from one unfocused point to another. The inconsistency in characterization does not help.

Though some of the resolutions of the stories are loose, they nonetheless, bear conclusions  that fall within the standards of well tied ends. That is, some wind-up with optimistic outlook to life, while others culminate quite unconventionally, which in itself is positive because most unconventional or disturbing resolutions force us to re-examine some of the stubborn beliefs or expectations we hold.   Naija stories has done a successful work of showcasing new and emerging voices in Nigerian literature.

About the author:

 Unoma Nguemo Azuah teaches Composition and Creative Writing at Lane College, Jackson, Tennessee. She is an MFA graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She also has an MA in English from Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. Her undergraduate degree in English is from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.  As an undergraduate at Nsukka, she edited the English department literary journal—The Muse and received the awards of the best Creative Writing student for two consecutives years: 1992 and 1993. Her other awards include the Hellman/Hammett award, the Urban Spectrum award, the Leonard Trawick award and the Association of Nigerian Authors/NDDC Flora Nwapa award for her debut novel Sky-high Flames.

Why we are not reading books

People are reading less these days, of books that is. In many homes, besides religious books and perhaps required textbooks, it is difficult to find books that are being read for leisure. We should not minimize the devastating effect on a people, of a non-reading culture. People should read. Actually, people do read, it is just not obvious. The reality is that books are competing with many other media for the attention of the populace. We have become afflicted by attention deficit disorders, thanks to the Internet. The Internet has barreled its way into our lives and changed us in mysterious ways. There are no boundaries that the Internet will not breach. It is relentless in taking down physical walls.

Let me concede that there are significant downsides to the increasing globalization of our world. However, if you ask my mother enduring what passes for life in today’s Nigeria, technology has freed her from the tyranny of our leaders’ kleptomania and ineptitude. She has her own cell phone; I can reach her at the first ring, no drama. You don’t want to know what it used to take to reach her before the coming of the cell phones. On the nights when there is no power in her house, she uses her cellphone as a flashlight to find the bathroom. My mother is sure that the white man will soon discover a wireless gadget you will wave around, and voila, there is light – and water. She has spent a lifetime trying to trust the malu droppings ensuing from the mouths of Nigeria’s thieving leaders. Now, she cannot stand their prattle. They have lost credibility.  She hopes that soon, astral travel will be a reality and she won’t have to use Nigeria’s “roads” and be ambushed by policemen and armed robbers, two monstrosities sporting a distinction without a difference.

We are living witnesses to seismic changes in how we now access and process information. The traditional publishing industry is on the ropes, sustained only by the arrogance of those who insist that, books must be written, and that, they will be read if only the populace would get off the shopping, malls and just read. But then everywhere you look, print newspapers are dying, hanging themselves out to die on decaying physical boundaries. Soon there will be children born who will read about a time when the newspaper made a joyful thud on someone’s driveway. The newspaper boy is going the way of the milkman. These days, by the time my newspaper comes I have read most of the news on my iPad or smartphone. I regularly pick up my newspapers from the curb and dump them in the recycling bin. Even the sales coupons have gone digital. Traditional publishing is on the ropes. It won’t be for long.

In the West, publishing houses are remaking themselves, trying hard with some success to reclaim the space that is being threatened by the democratization of publishing – that gift bestowed upon us by the Internet.  Publishing houses are competing with new tools of self expression. People are voting with their feet in the millions and going to the new medium as their primary source of information, education and entertainment. Traditional publishing houses have a lot to be worried about. They have historically depended on the book for their survival. The book is dying a long slow death.

What are the implications of this emerging paradigm shift for black Africa? It is true that for most of Africa, books and newspapers are going to be around for a long time. It is true that new technologies may also exacerbate the economic divide between the haves and the have-nots within and between nations. Writers complain that people do not read as much as they should in Africa. But then, is it true that people do not read? They may not be reading books, but they do read in the cyber-cafés, and in the markets. Everywhere that life allows them to, they read nonstop. They may not read books; they read tons of stuff on their cell-phones, on their laptops, on anything with a screen. Our writers just need to find a way to deliver their ideas creatively using this medium, while at the same time making some money.

Our writers and thinkers stubbornly insist on writing books in Africa where book reading is a luxury beyond many people. Writers are not listening and looking. People are actually reading a lot more than we realize. We should move our ideas to where the people are. There is an intimidating contingent of extremely learned Nigerian youths on Twitter and Facebook. They read the equivalent of a book’s chapter daily, they just don’t realize it. I have seen works on social media that put JP Clark-Bekederomo’s Ibadan to shame. The hunger for reading is still there. We may be looking in the wrong places and blaming the wrong people for what ails us. The other day someone asked my son, “Do you love reading books?” He answered truthfully, “No.” He was asked the wrong question. My son loves reading. Period.

Strange Passages to Harare North

First published in November 2009 in various media. Reproduced here for archival purposes only.

There is this thing called the Caine Prize for African Literature, whatever that means. People compete for it and someone invariably wins. There is a lot of noise making and jollification for a deserved win and the poor winner is expected to write a book. The poor fellow always obliges and dutifully produces a thoroughly wretched book. It hardly ever fails. There have been notable exceptions but one would argue that the writer wrote a good book despite winning the Caine Prize. One such wretched book is Harare North, written by the brilliant, perhaps gifted Brian Chikwava. He is destined to write a good book – once he finds his voice. It is just that right now, his toes are flirting with crickets while Africa is carrying elephants on her head. There are few books that have frustrated me more than Harare North. It is like staring in anger at a rich pot of soup ruined by an impish but talented cook.

Harare North is a meandering journey undertaken by an unnamed main character fleeing imaginary trouble back home in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (you get the story already, sorry!). He heads for London (aka Harare North) and proceeds to lead a wretched meaningless existence.  Saddled with a not-so-bright friend named Shingi he immerses himself in the under belly of the immigrant community in London building tricks to stay above water. It is not a pretty book but this is not just because of the wretched lives these people live in the grimy underbelly of grimy London. This is an unfortunate book for reasons that are the fault of Chikwava and publishers eager to publish and sell reams of Africa’s dignity to a willing and gullible Western audience. What is it with African writers and stereotyping? In the 21st century many of them are still scheming their way into the pockets of gullible Westerners who truly believe that Africans are exotic lovable dolts to be watched like animals in a zoo.  I am not amused.

On one level, Harare North is a brilliant book, written by a brilliant, sensitive author with the potential of shining a compassionate light into the lives of immigrants of color living desperate, furtive lives in the shadows of London. And sometimes it works. Chikwava lays bare the tricks that immigrants turn to somehow survive in London. But then, what’s with the contrived English? Harare North is engaging and heart-warming, but the contrived English gets in the way, each time. It is like finding your favorite meal infested with tiny obnoxious stones. The book offers evidence of formerly elegant prose poetry ruined by reckless experimentation with contrived English. There is no linguistic structure to it because the language simply doesn’t exist. Profound thoughts become distressed babble under the weight of dysfunction. Not convincing, the contrived result. Chikwava has dissipated vigorous energy to write nonsense. It is funny but it is nonsense.

This is too bad because there is all this brilliance peeking furtively out of the contrived fortress of a pretend-language. There is something phony about contrived language, because it is, well, phony. I didn’t like it when Uzodinma Iweala used it in Beasts of No Nation, and I certainly am dismayed that it ruined a brilliant opportunity in Harare North. Read this beauty of a sentence, reconstruct it in real prose and tell me why I shouldn’t mourn the loss of a dream novel: “Harare township is full of them stories about the misfortunes that people meet; they carry bags full of things and heads that is full of wonders of new life, hustle some passage to Harare North, turn up without notice at some relative’s door, only to have they dreams thrown back into they faces.” (p 5)

Chikwava taps brilliantly into the lode of indignities and humiliation that Africans endure inside Western embassies and then promptly loses it in the fog of contrived language: “…the British High Commission don’t just give visa to any native who think he can flag down jet plane jump on it and fly to Harare North, especially when they notice that people get them visitors’ visa and then on landing in London they do this style of claim asylum. So people is no getting that old consulate treatment: the person behind the counter window give you the severe look and ask you to bring more of this and that and throw back your papers, and before you even gather them together he have call up the next person.” (p 6) What is the purpose of this exercise?

Through the fog of artificial language, a picture emerges, of Chikwava deconstructing the method of African immigrants’ shame, and self-loathing. He explores social class stratification and tensions between the newly arrived (“native” Africans) and the veteran exiles (“lapsed” Africans) albeit in derogatory, stereotypical terms. The resulting self-loathing is emotionally violent as African immigrants recoil from anything that reminds them of their roots. The main character just coming in from Zimbabwe complains of rejection thus. “I have bring Paul and Sekai small bag of groundnuts from Zimbabwe; groundnuts that my aunt bring from she rural home. Sekai give the small bag one look and bin it right in front of me. She say I should never have been allow to bring them nuts into the country because maybe they carry disease. Then she go out and buy us some McDonald’s supper.” P (7) It is refreshing, the candor, he even touches upon gay life in Africa’s prisons, a subject that African writers have been loath to touch or explore even in the 21st century. Chikwava documents in exquisite detail the African immigrant’s willful determination to erase his or her African identity. The character Sekai, the “lapsed” African is always embarrassed by anything African. “I go out and sit at the doorstep and start to use screwdriver to pick off the mud that have cake under my boots from walking around outside. But Sekai follow me and ask me to look down on our street and tell she if I see anyone sitting on they doorstep? Me I don’t get the score what this is all about until she tell me that this is not township; I should stop embarrass them and start behaving like I am in England.” (p14)

Life in Zimbabwe and within the Zimbabwean immigrant community is the theatre of the absurd and Chikwava captures it in harrowing and comic detail. It is a tragicomedy and one never knows whether to laugh or to cry at this dark, intense, brilliant canvas: “Mother, she die of overdose. They carry she to hospital in wheelbarrow and she don’t come back. Then they take she body from the township and bury she in rural house under heap of red earth and rock. Now the spirit is still wandering in the wilderness because family squabbles end up preventing umbuyiso and this has not been done for years now.” (p16)

There is more where that came from: “Shingi sleeps in the lounge; he share the room with Farayi. Two mattresses is on rotting floorboards, blankets all over, small heaps of things telling one story of big journey that is caused by them dreams that start far away in them townships. I can sniff sniff them natives’ lives squatting under the low damp ceiling like thieves that have just been catch.” (p30)

If I seem to obsess mostly about the language, it is because I was distracted, distracted to drink, especially by sentences that Chikwava almost forgot to engineer into nonsense. “And then me I hear that people in the village where Mother is buried will be moved somewhere because government want to take over the area since emeralds have now been discovered there.” (p 17) The language gets in the way in a subversive manner and it as a result the book is torpedoed by an inane contrivance. Wise profound sayings, parables and proverbs become trite under the weight of linguistic engineering. And haunting prose is defaced by bad marketing decisions. But I must say, he is good, Chikwava, he can describe despair with a few deft strokes of the pen. “She take me to the kitchen and the air smell of bad cooking and the sink have one heap of dirty dishes and all. It’s like they lie there for donkey years. The ceiling on one corner is growing mushrooms and things.” (p 30)

Interestingly enough, as I read the book, I kept thinking of Ike Oguine’s The Squatter’s Tale, plotting how to rescue Chikwava’s tale from prose abuse. There is pretty prose in there, trapped in needless experimentation: “The glass slip off my hand and come crashing on the edge of the sink bowl; it break and fill the kitchen with the kind of fright that fill the room when you have break your mother’s bestest teapot.”  (p 31) Nice. Almost. Sometimes however it dissolves into malarial gibberish and you wonder: What is the purpose of this prattle: “You always know more than you believe in over what you know because what you know can be so big that sometimes it is useless weapon, you cannot wield it proper and, when you try, it can get your head out of gear and stop you focusing.” (p 43)

 The book provides ample proof of autobiographical musings. It was probably not Chikwava’s intention to ridicule his heritage in which case it is a weakness of the narrative that he could be accused of creating racist stereotypes and spinning bigoted tales. A sensitive soul reading the book would balk at all these literary Sambos in black face and recoil from a Stepin Fetchit story that appears to have little redeeming value. I concede and celebrate Chikwava’s right of self expression but for me, the question is this: If this was written by a white person, would I be offended? The answer is a resounding yes. There are all these traces of bigotry and prejudice some aimed at gays and lesbians. We see the immigrant of color as a shiftless aimless buffoon. This is just one aspect of the immigrant life. Who tells the others? In addition, the story appears to be ridiculing, and making caricatures out of African traditional customs and values. The book succumbs to too much cynicism like too much stew on white rice. The result is aimless and purposeless, a story that goes nowhere. But then some would argue that Chikwava’s Zimbabwe is not going anywhere fast. Regardless, this is not the Zimbabwe of Petina Gappah’s elegant stories (Elegy for Easterly), or even of Dambudzo Marechera’s brilliant angst-ridden anthems. Should you read this book? Yes, read it, it is fun despite itself. I do miss Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale. It is a better book. By far

Femi Osofisan: A Song for JP Clark, Our JP Clark

The playwright Professor Femi Osofisan has quietly written a book on John Pepper-Clark Bekederemo, enigmatically titled JP Clark: A Voyage bearing the name the world knows him by still. All I can say is this: JP Clark, the book, is a masterpiece of quiet industry, prodigious intellect and simmering passion, one told lovingly by a master story teller. It is also an important book that should be handed out to every student of African literature. John Pepper-Clark Bekederemo’s contributions to African literature are muscular and this book makes that point eloquently and puts to shame any other biographical work that has been written on Clark (yes, let’s call him Clark). It also says to African writers, we can write and publish it ourselves, and write and publish it well.

This lovely book can stand side by side with any biography written in the West and it will compete favorably. Bookcraft, the book’s publisher did an outstanding job, the editorial work was outstanding. It is a pretty book, with a handsome layout. I thought the collage of Clark’s headshot on the cover was inspired. This book was clearly a labor of love, a work of academic rigor. In using JP Clark as the book’s title, Osofisan forces the reader to wrap the mind around the JP Clark that we knew, that smoldering, enigma that has insisted on doing things his own way.

JP Clark is the product of good research by someone trained to listen to oral folklore and reconcile it carefully with the written. This is a tale warmly told; the reader is at the feet of a story teller, lapping it all in. Read the book and sit enthralled as Osofisan weaves a touching tale about how the name Pepper came about. The book itself is poetry in motion, the pieces ofClark’s poems Osofisan showcases are mostly exquisite in how they chart Clark’s trajectory as a poet and as a person. His humanity is evident with all its dignity and warts and the reader bonds with this most complex of men who it turns out is not the curmudgeon that he makes himself out to be.

The book entertains, educates and subverts with a quiet, steady, unassuming force; you can almost see the twinkle in Osofisan’s eyes as he demonstrates that you do not have to waste reams of trees writing about the environmental devastation in Nigeria’s delta. A few well crafted, well placed sentences, gbam, you are there, soaking in the gas flares. Osofisan pans some of Clark’s poems and the book America, their America, but it is without malice. He dismisses America, their America, with a gentle but pungent force:

“… I consider it a minor milestone in JP’s career, something like a brief diversion in an athlete’s course. The book is most uneven at best, combining passages of brilliant observation and graphic phrasing, with crude generalisations and highly idiosyncratic opinion.”

By Osofisan’s account, Clark’s play Ozidi Saga is a great piece of work. Here Clark is a genius in transcribing an indigenous epic as opposed to recreating Greek myths out of banalities. One gets a sense from the book that much of Clark’s latter poetry is autobiographical, a tad too accessible, prose broken into bits, hinting at the poetry of a man in the winter of his craft. Speaking of reviews and reviewers, we learn that Soyinka once reviewed the same book and laced the review with well-placed insults:

“Each page of America reads exactly like that picture we see often in the Nigerian street, of a child fighting a man ten times his size who stands very still while the child’s arms flail wildly over his head, crying all the time in frustration and self-pity… America their America will prove a useful book to give to any American we particularly wish to insult.” (p. 159)

This earns a swift retort from Clark:

“… it was worthy of Mr. Soyinka, a compulsive performer with a penchant for upgrading himself. It should earn him more return tickets from Uncle Sam. One positive aspect of this performance directed at a packed gallery; it showed that Mr. Soyinka can write simple prose after all. I did not have to take a purgative after it.” (p 163)

JP Clark is a work of anthropology and sociology, a tender and balanced rendering of a complex life lived complexly. Osofisan deploys the rich language of a seasoned and impish playwright; this is a writer with enough self-confidence to appropriate the English language as his own and write is as he feels it. And boy does the reader feel this owner of words as the story is told with near clinical detail but with enough passion and skill to keep the reader thirsting for more. This is one important book, not lazy drunken opinions hurriedly stapled together for a quick buck.

One learns new things; how JP got the name Pepper, we learn also that he wanted to be a soldier and almost made it in. His father dissuaded him and saves Clark and Nigeria from such foolishness. There are many other side benefits; for example the Lagos of old lives and breathes under Osofisan’s expert eyes. Buried in the book is a nice essay on Nigeria’s pioneer transportation system of lorries or trucks, Armels:

“At Agbanikaka it would make its first stopover and passengers would disembark to ease themselves and stretch their limbs, and regale themselves with bush meat, which was the town’s special delicacy. In fact the joke in those days was that in Agbanikaka you could never tell between dog meat and genuine bush meat.”

Meticulously researched, the book makes all the right connections; the oral and the written, but enriched immensely by the oral. Osofisan is not a lazy man. He chronicles excellently the history of the decline of university education in Nigeria. Nigeria has become a dangerous place, swimming with thugs who would rob and beat up icons like Clark because they don’t know or care about those things. There is a sad passage there where Clark and his family were brutalized by thugs and robbers on campus, cultism had taken over and they had no choice but to flee

The compassion and empathy show; there is good chemistry between Osofisan and Clark. The book has all these pictures, many black and white, of an era gone by. The subject is Clark but it is more than Clark. The eyes of memory linger over each one for oh so long. They are mostly undated (unfortunately, offering hints of careless curatorship) but it is a fun activity trying to guess at Clark’s age and the era. Osofisan expertly avoids gossipy editorials, preferring for the reader to make up his or mind based on the mine of evidence offered. And Osofisan knows his literature, man, he does. I remember a lazy morning alone, wrapped in solitude and a warm conversation, reading this pretty book and luxuriating in delectable pieces of Clark’s poetry:

… the river, black, dazzling

And beautiful in spite of oil spills,

Flowed on, as it did before any road

Was built through forest or desert,

And as it will flow, when forest

And desert have taken over the road.

[The Emissaries’ A Lot From Paradise:24-5]

The book starts out with Osofisan heading out with the writer Olu Obafemi to Clark’s home in Kiagbodo. Touching is the journey itself, there is an easy camaraderie between the two writers as they banter and trash talk their way to Clark, to this beautiful once idyllic place. Avuncular beyond his years, his relationship with Obafemi is a study in the enigma and mystery of friendship.

He records Clark’s tempestuous relationship with the fellow writers of the time, principally, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Odia Ofeimun, their loves and their spats, which revolved around ideological differences, different ways of seeing the world as writers and activists, differences which came to an explosive head during the Nigerian civil war. Clark gained fame or notoriety for refusing to side with Biafra.

It would be a shame for this important book to gather the dust of indifference. It would be great to have Osofisan and Clark at a forum discussing the many rich subjects covered in this book. This book ought to end up in a digital library with hot hyper-links to the numerous documents, photographs and sources mentioned in the book. What will happen to Clark’s papers? What will happen to Osofisan’s papers?

It is not a perfect book. Sometimes, it is not clear where Osofisan’s source quote is from and that can be frustrating.  I could not place in the book, when Osofisan and Obafemi traveled to Kiagbodo; the journey is undated. There is a helpful bibliography in the end, but I wondered if Osofisan read Soyinka’s memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn. It is referenced in the book.

In the book, Professor Ebun Clark, Clark’s wife, a pioneering literary authority in her own right cut a quiet dignified figure in the background. I thought about her, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and all the other unsung women writers of their generation who toiled quietly but with determination in the shadows of strong men who would not share, these Virginia Woolfs of their generation and my heart sang solo songs for their courage and grit. I wanted to know more about Ebun Clark and her fellow female writers like Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta. They were at best brilliant footnotes, propping up their husbands’ dreams for the most part in a patriarchy.

I thought about Osofisan’s treatment of the turbulent events in Nigeria starting from the Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu-led 1966 coup to the Nigerian civil war that claimed many lives. It could have used a more in-depth look and I wondered if his analysis was colored by his own biases or politics. You would have to read another book to get more out of that history. But as they say, you can’t get everything out of one book. What I got out of this book has earned Professor Femi Osofisan my undying respect. Alagba Okinba Launko, I salute you.


Also read For John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo: Triumphing Over an Imaginary Tragedy

Doreen Baingana on fishing for tropical tales

First published in Next Newspapers, July 18, 2010. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

Doreen Baingana’s collection of short stories Tropical Fish examines Uganda and the Diaspora in black and white, with history graying in the fading distance. Idi Amin was a deadly buffoon. Up to 400,000 people may have perished under his reign of lunacy. Amin’s atrocities were perhaps dwarfed by Milton Obote’s. Then there is AIDS. Up to 800,000 people may have died already. Amin and Obote died in peace in exile without any credible attempts to hold them accountable. So much for justice. In Tropical Fish, Baingana says virtually nothing about Obote’s evil reign. This is baffling. How do you forget? Should fiction not document the lived history? Baingana says in the book that Idi Amin gave Asians 72 hours to leave Uganda in 1972. They were actually given 90 days because Amin claimed that Asians had the habit of giving Ugandans 90 days credit. Baingana is inattentive to historical detail.

The story, “Green Stones” is a delightful conversation about relationships, marriages, and life. In Christine, the main character’s world, alcoholism and infidelity hold sway in the form of Taata, her father, a mean drunk, the sauced burden of her mother, Maama. It is a look at family relationships, warts and all from the eyes of a child, a revealing exploration of familiar issues: Infidelity, alcoholism, the extended family, patriarchy – all within the stifling confines of a traditional marriage. ”Green Stones” is written with all of Baingana’s literary muscle. Tart luscious prose bear nice turns of phrases and they delight the palate.

”Passion” and “A Thank-You Note” are the only previously unpublished stories in the book. No wonder. They are awful. They sit in the centre of the book, smug, like badly cooked rice, hoping to be saved by great stew. ”Passion” is an imperfectly designed, puzzling story leaning on the pretense of magic realism. ”A Thank-You Note” is an overwrought introspection on AIDS. Baingana tries – and fails – to put herself in the mind of an AIDS sufferer. The story does serve a useful purpose: the inchoate main character Rosa is mercifully killed off by bad writing. ”Hunger” and ”First Kiss” are rambling, pointless exercises in self-absorption.

You must read ”Lost in Los Angeles: and ”Questions of Home.” They are thoughtful reflections on immigration, the immigrant, exile and homecoming. One is taken by the unresolved pain and anguish that are unearthed in these stories. There are some good observations about the impact of technological advances on community and relationships. The stories spoke to me. Nonetheless, the immigrant of color in Baingana’s book is painfully self-conscious. There are strong hints of self-absorption and narcissism. For Baingana, even lovemaking is an opportunity for deep introspection in search of meaning where none probably exists. Sometimes folks just want to get laid.

The book’s attitude to sex is fascinating; sex is described in near indifferent terms – a few minutes of heaving and pushing. The book makes a grand failure of exploring sensuality and is hugely successful at remaining mum on the sum total of our sexuality. It is a poorly kept secret that same-sex relationships in Africa’s boarding schools are common. Baingana gingerly navigates the fringes of tradition as she rides around on wheels of modernity.

Baingana is unsuccessful at being more than one character, Christine. The other sisters, Patti and Rosa are merely afterthoughts. They are identical triplets cannibalized by Christine’s strong character and weak writing. Baingana asserts Uganda’s otherness as she carefully separates Ugandan words from English words, like a cook separating stones from beans. To her credit, she does not provide a glossary of Ugandan terms. Yes. Let the reader do the research. Tropical Fish is slightly burdened by some editing issues. Baingana should shop around for a more organized publisher next time.

Africans are victims of uncritical acculturation. Questions of identity abound: Who are we? Who should we be? Why are we the ones who keep trying to be like the other? What does exile mean in the age of Facebook? Who really leaves home these days? Who stays home these days? Where is home? Expecting Baingana’s book to answer these questions is like asking the slide rule to compete with the iPad. Our intellectuals have no answers; they are too busy navel gazing, whining about racism and drinking the white man’s best wines. See, they wail to the West, we are human beings too; we eat ice cream!

Baingana’s stories are sleepy, like passengers on a red-eye bus to the city struggling to come alive at every junction manned by thieving policemen. We see the self-loathing that Western education confers on Africans as they flee anything remotely African or indigenous. In the fashion, in the food, in the literature, Africa desires to be white. Africa is turmoil but the book ends on a hopeful note. The exile begins the long process of re-introduction to her ancestral land. Culture shock streaks out of cultural attitudes to work and life. Still, she is here to stay, says the book. Did she stay? I suspect that “Christine” is back home in Washington DC, subversively pinching cantaloupes in farmers’ markets. And the beat goes on.

The Power of Our Single Story

First published in Next Newspapers, February 13, 2011. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie hits the nail on the head when she calls the West on their obsession with the single story of gore that is their Africa. Adichie is absolutely right: In the West, the power of the single story races through cash registers and rifles through white liberal pockets and rich racist valleys. However, there is the implication that the single story is mostly the product of the other (aka white person). Lately the single story has been bred, watered and nurtured for profit by some African hustler-writers. I am talking of people writing to the test of Western hunger for the stereotypical.

Whites are not the only ones that climax to the beat of stereotypical African stories. With all due respects, the bulk of contemporary African writing is all about the single story that the white world loves. Indeed, several African writers have over the years focused on the single story for profit.  These writers will probably ask you, what else is there to talk about? And I agree, for different reasons. Take Nigeria for instance; there is only one single story. What our thieving leaders are doing to Nigeria, is quite simply black on black crime. To tell any other story would be criminal. In that respect, our writers are right to turn their rage inwards and shame our leaders with a single story – the fate of the fabled tortoise that borrowed feathers from birds, flew with them to a feast in the skies and tricked them out of every morsel of the feast. In that fable, the enraged birds sent the tortoise crashing down to earth sans borrowed feathers. Let us send our leaders the way of the greedy tortoise. The good people of Tunisia just sent their thieving tortoise packing.

Achebe’s essay, Today the Balance of Stories speaks to the racism inherent in stories about Africa as told by Western writers and the occasional accomplice of color like VS Naipaul. Adichie’s Single Story speech is essentially Achebe’s seminal essay set to (YouTube) video. The new medium is not The Book. It is called YouTube. Ideas rock and books are finding their way into garden mulch. Think about it. Achebe is a prophet rendered mute by advances in technology. In Adichie’s video testimony gone viral on the Internet, Achebe’s great words are re-born. YouTube says we ought to take a break from writing books and return to the oral tradition of our ancestors.

Adichie represents how things used to be and what to hope for in the Nigeria of our dreams. Sadly, she is a painful stand-out from the forest of mediocrity that now insists on respect. And hers is a thoughtful and inspiring speech. But then, why are we running around assuring people that we really are human beings? Why are we so defensive about our humanity and why do we proclaim our humanity by denying in installments, all about us that is authentically African? Why must we quote mostly Western authors to prove that we are indeed learned? What is wrong with our food? The French eat snails; it is not more appetizing because they call it escargot. Why must we hide the fact that some of us relish sautéed termites and loudly proclaim our love of caviar er fish eggs? Many of us, especially our leaders have a complex about our African heritage. Let us think deeply about these things. Our psychosis is more than skin deep.

Heads ought to bloody roll for what has become of Nigeria under civilian leadership. How can things be this bad in a land just bursting at the seams with some of the best resources the world has? How can people ignore the fact that there are no roads, there is no light, no water, no safety and security, no health care facilities worth using and the educational system has virtually collapsed? Our educational system is so bad many of our Nigerian “professors” refuse to allow their children in their own classrooms. What other stories are there to tell of Nigeria?

I am really beginning to believe that our people deserve what they are getting. Take Abuja; basically thieving intellectuals, civil servants and politicians have carved up all the choice land for themselves and shoved everyone else to the far outskirts to live like sub-humans. And the people seem happy about it, happily going about their daily business of begging thieves for crumbs. If we really believe we are human beings like the white man, we should be fighting this black on black crime. As a people, we should take a deep breath, stop the navel gazing and reflect on why five decades after Achebe’s Things Fall Apart we are still lecturing the white man on the need for respect. It is hard to respect what the eye sees. There is not much to respect in the shame that has become Nigeria. If we urinate in our living room, how can we demand that visitors respect said living room? Anyway, my point is this; we are our own worst enemies.