#Caineprize – The Thirteenth Caine Prize Shortlist: Urban Zoning

I am enjoying sharing my thoughts on the stories on the Caine Prize’s shortlist as part of a collaborative effort with the blogger Aaron Bady.  Last week, I offered my thoughts on Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic. So, what do I think of Billy Kahora’s Urban Zoning? I can understand why it made the shortlist; it tries to be different, and features some good writing and a lot of promise. Indeed, this story speaks to the vision articulated by Bernadine Evaristo, outspoken chair of the prize’s judges, in her essay on the Caine Prize. Evaristo’s essay astutely acknowledges the reality – that Africa faces new wars, and, yes, triumphs, issues that should be addressed in addition to the conventional anxieties and trauma that seem to define Africa as a sad cliché:

“I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent. I’ve been banging on about this for years because while we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on? Or rather, for other kinds of African novels to be internationally celebrated. What other aspects of this most heterogeneous of continents are being explored through the imaginations of writers?”

In Urban Zoning Kahora explores urban life in Nairobi, Kenya through the drunken eyes of a protagonist called Kandle. Kahora throws a lot of issues into the stewpot – dysfunctions birthed by little people in ill-fitting suits living furtive lives in dusty nightmares. There is petty corruption, alcoholism, rape, misogyny, same-sex sexual abuse, etc.  It is ugly, Nairobi is a haven of depravity, fueled by Africa’s new wars, he documents the emptiness of a displaced generation and the reader detects whiffs of sweaty incompetence, day-old used tea bags, sex and shit.

When Kahora is good, prose poetry trots jauntily with the ease of a good rapper’s rhythm:

“A philosopher of the Kenyan calendar, Kandle associated all months of the year with different colors and hues in his head. August he saw as bright yellow, a time when the year had turned a corner; responsibilities would be left behind or pushed to the next January, a white month. March was purple-blue. December was red.”

Kahora can be funny – and dark as sin:

“After completing third form he had dropped rugby and effaced the memory of those clutching hands on his balls with a concentrated horniness. He became a regular visitor to Riruta, looking for peri-urban pussy. One day, during the school holidays when he was still in form three, he had walked into his room and found Atieno, the maid, trying on his jeans. They were only halfway up, her dress lifted and exposing her thighs. The rest of those holidays were spent on top of Atieno. He would never forget her cries of “Maiyo! Maiyo! Maiyo!” carrying throughout the house. God! God! God! After that he approached sex with a manic single-mindedness. It wasn’t hard. Girls considered him cute. When he came back home again in December, Atieno wasn’t there; instead there was an older, motherly Kikuyu woman, ugly as sin.”

Sadly, it is not only the protagonist that has alcohol abuse issues, Kahora’s sentences are all drunk, staggering in the streets, drunken lisping sentences drained of spirit, waving at strangers:

“In a city–village rumor circuit full of outlandish tales of ministers’ sons who drove Benzes with trunks full of cash, of a character called Jimmy X who was unbeaten in about five hundred bar fights going back to the late ’80s; in a place where sixty-year-old tycoons bedded teenagers and kept their panties as souvenirs; in a town where the daughter of one of Kenya’s richest businessmen held parties that were so exclusive that Janet Jackson had flown down for her birthday—Kandle, self-styled master of The Art of Seventy-Two-Hour Drinking, had achieved a footnote.”

My pet peeve: Kahora carefully italicizes and explains indigenous words – murram, mjengo, nundu. Word to the African writer, do not italicize our way of life, and stop explaining us to the world, that is what Google is for!

I must say that it is hard to date the era in this flat one-dimensional plot – to use the term loosely. This makes the setting incomplete. The writing is supercilious, cynical to the hilt. There is no joy in this droning semi-autobiographical, self-absorbed piece. It is slathered with rank cynicism which mushrooms into self-loathing, mocking an existence already bereft of purpose, defined by dark drunken labels: Smirnoff. Red label. Vodka.

Reading Urban Zoning is like walking into a cavernous hall only to be entertained by the sleepy insistent drone of indifferent echoes. Cute at first, it gets old soon enough. The reader wants to bang the head on a mjengo truck. There are all these inchoate character sketches of human beings who never rise above the indignity of caricatures or cartoon characters: “Mr. Koigi, a rounded youth with a round belly and hips that belied his industry. He had had an accident as a child, and was given to tilting his head to the right like a small bird at the most unlikely moments.”

Kahora showcases a lot of talent here, most of it misdirected. For once, I wished he’d gone to an MFA diploma mill to learn the elements of a conventional short story; setting, plot, conflict, etc. The good thing about Urban Zoning is that the story makes me pine for Binyavanga Wainaina’s genius. Kahora is no Wainaina. Wainaina’s book, One Day I Will Write About This Place features lush undisciplined prose, Nairobi comes alive, and the reader falls in love with Nairobi, sex, shit and all (read my review here).

My best lines are at the end but first you will have to wade through thickets of self-absorption to enjoy them:

“They both laughed from deep within their bellies, that laughter of Kenyan men that comes from a special knowledge. The laughter was a language in itself, used to climb from a national quiet desperation.”

What did I learn from this story? Well, Kahora is a good writer, he is going places, but not with this story.

Related blogs and resources:

Interview with Billy Kahora on his nomination for the Caine Prize
Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life

City of Lions


#Caineprize – The Thirteenth Caine Prize Shortlist: Bombay’s Republic

The thirteenth Caine Prize shortlist is here and already the stories are generating some buzz. The blogger Aaron Bady has urged some writers to blog and tweet (#Caineprize) thoughts about the shortlist (see his post here). I am not sure I will have time to devote to this worthy activity but I will try to chime in when I can.

I have read Bombay’s Republic on the shortlist by Rotimi Babatunde. Nice. Babatunde is the first writer ever that has ever made me gaze awestruck at an 89-word sentence. Yes, 89 words, that is his opening paragraph. And it is one gorgeous lumbering sentence rolling past the eyes with an enchanting attitude that reeks of confidence, like a train of colorful, pretty cars:

“The old jailhouse on the hilltop had remained uninhabited for many decades, through the construction of the town’s first grammar school and the beginning of house-to-house harassment from the affliction called sanitary inspectors, through the laying of the railway tracks by navvies who likewise succeeded in laying pregnancies in the bellies of several lovestruck girls, but fortunes changed for the building with the return of Colour Sergeant Bombay, the veteran who went off with the recruitment officers to Hitler’s War as a man and came back a spotted leopard.”

Babatunde displays a good mastery of his craft and shows that he has a distinct voice even as his prose offers lovely hints of VS Naipaul. He coolly ignores traditional conventions of writing even as they yell at him (“Use short sentences!” “Where are your quotes, young man?”). I was pleasantly surprised by his audacity and creativity. For the main character, Bombay the Nigerian, going to Burma, war is the beginning of change:

“Bombay had seen a lot in the war. Diarrhoeic Europeans pestered by irreverent flies while the men shat like domestic livestock in the open. Blue eyes rolling in mortal fear as another enemy shell whistled past. But never before had he imagined one of his imperial masters degenerating into a state so wretched. He found it good to know that was also possible.”

The story takes us on a trip to Burma and World War II as told through the eyes of one of thousands of West Africans that fought that war and endured prejudice and racism from Whites and Asians alike. Exile bears a tart, unique taste in his mouth, and pops out of unlikely places (Babatunde describes homesick soldiers feeding “on wild bananas lined with pawpaw-like seeds but tasting like detergent”). Beyond the banalities of exile, dislocation and the push and pull of physical boundaries, war is also about the politics of power, race being a major subtheme:

“A man was still a man and a leopard a leopard while the old jailhouse was a forsaken place not fit for human habitation. A white man was the District Officer who went by in an impressive white jacket and a black man was the Native Police constable who saluted as the white man passed. This was how the world was and there was no reason to think it could be otherwise.”

Bombay, the major protagonist does not overwhelm; listening to the recruits drawn from distant places on the continent of Africa, speaking a plethora of languages, the bedlam of dizzying change makes for a delightful reading stew. Here, you can see Ceylon the island, you can smell the ambience. His illustration of racism is quirky, clever and effective.

“Reports had come that the pants of the African soldiers were sewn three-quarter length to conceal their tails and the headman was bringing his villagers to confirm if this was the case. Bombay was not angry. He simply found it interesting people could assume he had a tail. The chance of anyone having such a belief was something he had not considered possible.”

Like a good storyteller, Babatunde makes you think. I thought of reading Henry Rider Haggard’s books as a little boy and learning now, understanding now that his novels that I read were neatly bound reams of racism, misogyny, with some anti-Semitism thrown in. Also, Babatunde introduces a clever parallel with Okonkwo of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and affirms to me my passionate belief that Things Fall Apart is evergreen in its universality and vision. Themes of nationhood, independence and change are cleverly addressed through the lunatic antics of Bombay returned from war to a Nigeria that has changed without him; Okonkwo returning from exile and finding that yes, things have fallen apart.

Unlike Biyi Bandele’s novel, Burma Boy (see my review here), the English language is not contrived, is not in the way; as a vehicle it carries the weight of the story nicely. I must say however, that despite the experimentation, the story is a bit too long and has whiffs of orthodoxy.  It is a carefully designed story, too meticulous. Babatunde made sure, like an MFA student, that all the elements of a short story were present; it’s as if he checked them all off: setting, plot, conflict, character, point of view, theme, etc. Still, I love this story. Please read it for yourself right here.

On Twitter, #caineprize will give you access to other bloggers’ thoughts, some of whom are:

Method to the Madness
The Oncoming Hope
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
The Mumpsimus

In the name of our sisters: Everything Good Will Come

Reproduced for archival purposes. First published in 2008

So she called me the other day, fruit of the loins of the son of my grandpa’s brother. And she said, you must come visit us, you must bring your family to Chicago to come see us. We are family, she said, it is good to do these things, she said, peering past the tattered curtains of our fraying relationships. And my heart said, go to Chicago and rest a bit. What kind of life is this that you are living? Every day you go to the same place and you talk to the same people who have the same ideas and the same opinions on the same things. And every day you go home exhausted from this madness. And my heart said; go to Chicago with your family and rest. The salt mines will be waiting for you.

 And so, we went all of us, to Chicago, armed with the hope of rest and communion with our blood. And I went to Chicago with Sefi Atta’s book, Everything Good Will Come. One week is a long time to be away from the salt mines of my daily existence. What would I do with myself for a week; I am not used to the pleasures of doing nothing. And so I thought, the book would keep me company as I await the return to the salt mines of my condition.

 Everything Good Will Come was a delicious choice. Atta’s book is about relationships. We follow Enitan, the main character as she celebrates the passages of life with a delightful cast of relationships, a colorful spectrum that includes her constantly feuding parents, her friend Sheri, and her boyfriends. The issues that the book addresses are refreshingly universal and Western readers who have overdosed on horrific stories about Africa may cure their hangover with this book. The book throbs with lyrical prose:

 “Hot were the days as I remember them, with runny-egg sunshine and brief breezes. The early afternoons were for eat and sleep breaks: eat a heavy lunch, sleep like a drunk.” (p7).

 It would be hard to imagine laconic words like these used to describe any part of Africa. Refreshing. Nice.

 Inside the plane to Chicago, we passed the book around and read enchanting nuggets of prose that spoke to us. My daughters gleefully read the following passage to two white ladies seated by them:

“I smiled at my father. He was always miserable after work, especially when he returned from court. He was skinny with a voice that cracked and I pitied him whenever he complained: “I’m working all day, to put clothes on your back, food in your stomach, pay your school fees. All I ask is for peace when I get home. Instead, you give me wahala. Daddy can I buy ice cream. Daddy can I buy Enid Blyton. Daddy my jeans are torn. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. You want me dead?”” (p20).

 The entire row of daughters and ladies rocked with laughter; and the universality of the passage made the meaning of wahala obvious. Now, that is good writing!

 Sefi Atta’s book gently throws up a lot of troubling issues and one learns to admire the dark intelligence that plotted these chapters. And she can play with words in the manner of a sister flirting with her brother. The words pop up and hide again and reappear in delightfully strange places. Hear this:

 “The wind popped my umbrella inside out, flipped my skirt almost to my waist. It ripped tears from my eyes and knocked my braids backward into my face.” (p78).

 Sweet, like biting into a juicy, free-range, truly organic mango.  Sweet.

 In the beginning there were walls. Atta’s book reminds me of the beginning of the end, perhaps. Anyone nostalgic for the Lagos and Nigeria of the 70’s and 80’s should hurry and go get this book. The book says to me: There are walls but they are coming down, slowly on everything that we hold dear. Atta assures the reader gently, ever so gently, that we stand on the shoulders of giant nightmares. And our anxieties drink deep and long from the well of our fears. The book gently joins the debate on the impact of globalization on our communities. We see with startling clarity the impact of the new religion on Nigeria, the flight of deep introspection by the intellectual class and the slow birth of a society without soul, wrapped in the filthy color of money – green. As we move from traditional notions of nation states to the individualism foisted on us by the scourge that is capitalism, we can only hope that, just as the cell phone rescued us from the feckless tyranny of land based, state-owned telephone systems, the new dispensation will lift us from the debris of our current condition. But first you must go read Atta’s book. The sister can write.

 Yes, the sister can write. She weaves a beautiful story of courage with unrelenting insistence. She says out loud to a jaded world: We come from a land of incredible beauty and unspeakable sadness. The reader never gets over the shock of witnessing enormous waste of potential and resources. And I am not talking about crude oil. Atta writes in the grand tradition of the writers before her. And she says to me that language is all in the mind. When t listen to the poets and writers of my childhood, they are speaking and writing in English but I smell the earth of my ancestors, I smell the musty sweat of my ancestors’ masquerades speaking to me from across the Atlantic, comforting me, soothing me. And in these books, they tell me that this earth also belongs to me. Atta has taken a rightful place in that pantheon of greats.

 The book wears its frailties gently on its sleeve and we are drawn to the writer’s humanity. The book is not without its weaknesses; in its unnecessary explanation of Nigerian terms, one senses a yearning to reach out to a mass market. Why would anyone bother to explain that eba is “a meal made from ground cassava?” When next you read about pasta, remind the author to footnote its explanation.

 Sister Atta, you speak to me in your book. You speak to me from deep in the bowels of my ancestors’ coven. You speak to me howling, bawling, and soaking me in the song of our mothers’ grief. In the feverish insistence of your voice, in the feverish insistence of your rhythm, in the pounding of your feet on the earth of our mothers, you speak to me. And joy rides our senses going places in the heart where fear still clings to life. Our sister, look at joy bounding up and down the streets of happy memories. Our sister, in your book, joy takes me by the hand and sets me free to dream of the way things used to be. I don’t remember much of Chicago. I will never forget Everything Good Will Come.

Helon Habila: Measuring Time… Slowly

Helon Habila is one formidable writer – of short stories. With the short story as a canvas, he takes his work ethic, mixes it up with his excellent powers of observation of the human condition and finishes up his patented recipe with a delicious dollop of prose poetry. With the short story Habila struts his stuff, gently telling complex truths with the aid of simple enchanting prose. The reader comes away comforted by this gentle storyteller who weaves evocative tales of mean giants who trample upon the innocent as they build monstrous edifices to tyranny. Habila’s short stories leave you pining for more. Unfortunately, more is not necessarily a novel.

The novel as a medium of expression undermines Habila’s strengths and exaggerates his weaknesses. Too bad, because on reading his latest offering Measuring Time, it is easy to forget that Habila is a celebrated writer with formidable literary skills. After all Habila has won both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing. You don’t get those accolades from tepid writing. I personally regard Helon Habila as one of Nigeria ’s important writers.

Clearly making the transition from the short story to the novel, in my view, has been problematic for Habila. I have bought both books that he has written – Waiting for an Angel, and Measuring Time. I am yet to finish reading Waiting for an Angel; instead of chapters, it is organized in chunky sections and each section reads like a good short story that yearns to be completed. The book in sum reads like a short story stretched too far. In Habila’s novels, truths that seemed profound in his short stories morph into overwrought banalities buried in way too many words. The analogy that comes to mind when thinking of Habila’s two books is that of an ungainly stretch limousine populated with soulless characters. Some vehicles should not be stretch limousines.

 In Measuring Time, we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of a set of twins – the scholarly but sickly Mamo and the soldier of fortune LaMamo and in so doing we peek through the window of Nigeria’s dwindling lights. Their mother dies during their birth and their father Lamang turns out to be one emotionally absent father. The twins are left to fend for themselves with the aid of extended family members. LaMamo and Mamo are separated early in the book as LaMamo sets forth to join a mercenary group. Mamo stays behind in the village to ruminate on the meaning of history and to write autobiographies, most notably of the Mai or chief of the village of Keti (the Mai is expecting a hagiography but the idealist in Mamo would not oblige). LaMamo and Mamo connect through the distance with long letters from LaMamo. The writing in the letters reminds the reader of the contrived English that seems to be the rage these days thanks to Uzodinma Iweala’s relentless (exasperating, I might add) use of that technique in his books. My humble opinion is that the technique fails to deliver in Habila’s book.

So why read the book? I must say in Habila’s defense that Measuring Time does grow on the reader, slowly but surely. Reading the book was a worthwhile, albeit frustrating exercise. The book does dip its many toes into too many issues and flees without any serious attempt at in-depth analysis. Habila’s technique seems to be to slyly force the reader to think about these things, and in the process, force the reader to do the research. If that succeeds in awakening a consciousness in the reader, then Habila’s experiment has been successful. This reader will never know. For me, it is hard to focus on the myriad issues in the book, thanks to an avalanche of cliched, uneven prose and dialogue that zigzags between American conversational English and English as is spoken in Nigeria.

Surprisingly, I found the book’s editing to be mediocre, with the occasional word used inappropriately. The wooden prose may have been as a result of over-editing, I’ll never know. My first experience with chapters that are not numbered was with Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn. I did not like it then and I don’t like it that Habila adopts the same technique in his books. Annoying, especially since each chapter reminds me of an unfinished short story.

The reader plodding through Measuring Time feels like a ravished diner picking through a crab for crabmeat. Hard work, but there is at least the promise of meat. Every now and then, the crab offers some meat but one wonders if it was worth the effort. My verdict is that the reading was well worth my time. There were gems. My favorite chapter (or section?) is the one named after the book, Measuring Time (p 138) the one that houses my favorite lines: “… and as he waited he measured time in the shadows cast by trees and walls, in the silence between one breath and the next, in the seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and months that add up to form the seasons “ (p 139) Scrumptious. My favorite sentence: “Lamang died in degrees.” (p 215) Neat. There are more gems like that but you really have to plod through the book page by page to enjoy them.

All in all, reading Measuring Time was comforting for this reader who escaped Nigeria many, many moons ago. Where the book was good, one could almost taste Nigeria . My pre-teen daughter Ominira asked me if I liked the book and I said yes. She has the book now and she seems engaged in it; she comes out of nowhere every so often and asks me questions about meanings buried inside the book. She seemed traumatized by a section in the book where the twins kill a dog and rub the dog’s rheum in their eyes. American kids don’t like dog murderers; I’ll have to find Habila and make him pay for my daughter’s psychological counseling. Ominira has been dragging the book all over the place along with her ipod and other accoutrements of American youth. It is a good thing. Our children should read these books. Would I read Habila’s books again? Absolutely, once I find my copy of Waiting for an Angel.

Daughters of Eve and Other Tedious Tales

Daughters of Eve and Other New Short Stories from Nigeria is an anthology of Nigerian short stories edited by Dr. Emma Dawson and published by Critical, Cultural and Communications Press (CCCP), Nottingham. It features the writers Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Ikeogu Oke, Peter Ike Amadi, Jumoke Verissimo, Ifeanyi Ogboh, Rotimi (Timi) Ogunjobi, Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike, Tolu Ogunlesi, Soji Cole, Alpha Emeka, and Emmanuel Iduma. This is an anthology so bad, I almost resolved to give in to the fervent wishes of my friends and foes alike – to give up reading and reviewing books. It is becoming an unbearable ordeal. Why did I read this book? Well, the editor’s preface starts out with an ambitious proclamation: “This series focuses on the production of new writing in English, specifically new World Englishes fiction… writing which is newly sourced, edited and presented with a critical introduction.” This appears to be the second volume in a planned series of anthologies of short stories from certain sections of the world, where English is arguably a second language.

It is disappointing that there is only one female writer showcased in this volume. This is hardly representative of the muscular performances of Nigeria’s female writers. Several of these alleged writers do not belong in any anthology that seeks relevance. This is not an important work but it does raise certain questions about how Nigerian, perhaps African literature is viewed and categorized in traditional academia. It is time to rethink the paradigm that drives the current world view.  Students of literature are still being taught from the same tired pedagogy, reducing our stories to the pre and post-colonial. Globalization as in the coming of the Internet and smartphones has already dwarfed the linearism of colonialism in terms of its impact on the way of life of Africans living and dying in Africa. To reduce today’s literature to something as remote and amorphous as the post-colonial is to literally miss the boat of what is going on in Africa today. Life is more complicated than that. Boundaries now bleed gleefully into each other and dissolve into that gaseous entity called the Internet. We must not be bound by the strictures of what was taught us in the classrooms. What I read in hard print lately seems to be relentlessly about documenting the lives of the other, Africans being the other. Case in point: Nigerian terms that are deemed alien to Western eyes are painstakingly italicized to separate them from “normal” English. Why should we be italicizing egusi in the year 2010? Do we do the same to a Reuben sandwich? Why must our otherness be branded with a big red sign – toxic waste? Stop italicizing our way of life:

The editor makes an eloquent case – that this is not the best of Nigerian writing. Not once is there mention of the works of Nigerians writers on the Internet. You will not find innovation here. The flagship short story Daughters of Eve by Peter Ike Amadi is a heartbreak of a story only in the sense that after reading this too-long tale that goes nowhere, the reader is filled with compassion for the amount of unnecessary effort that must have gone into creating this distraction, There are some other comforting names in the book: Tolu Ogunlesi, Ikeogu Oke, Jumoke Verissimo, and Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike. There is a reason why they shine; they know their craft because they practice it every day everywhere. I enjoyed Jumoke Verissimo’s Lightless Room. It was a reader’s delight. It did not belong in this collection of mostly tired tales. Emmanuel Iduma does show a lot of promise in his story Guitar Boy. However, even the best are plagued by editorial issues and poor research. Also, the claim that this is fresh writing is easily debunked by searching the titles of the stories on the Internet. I found quite a number of them on the Internet and even in other “anthologies.”

Dawson may have consulted some experts on the subject of Nigerian literature; however, it clearly does not show in the output. Several influential names come to mind: Bibi Bakare, Ike Anya, Muhtar Bakare, Sola Osofisan, Chuma Nwokolo, Nnorom Azuonye, Afam Akeh, Obiwu, Lola Shoneyin, Molara Wood, Jeremy Weate, Chika Unigwe, Victor Ehikhamenor, Ivor Hartmann, etc. Some of them are not even Nigerians; rather they are digital natives toiling on the Internet daily to push the envelope in terms of how our stories should be told. New Nigerian anthologies are born literally every day on the Internet featuring truly fresh and emerging voices. Fresh, frothing, scintillating prose struts out of those web pages and social networking media like great palmwine. You couldn’t tell from this anthology but Nigerian literature is alive and rocking although the reader can be forgiven for thinking it is on life support judging from the mostly wretched offerings in this anthology of mediocrity. If it is any consolation, the editor’s three sentence narrative on her Okada motorcycle experience in Nigeria provided one of the few nuggets of hilarity and brilliance in an otherwise forgettable anthology.

A blazing sun: The story teller returns

Note: Reproduced here for archival purposes only. First published in 2006.

I write this for James Meredith, the distinguished first black student of OLEMISS, and for John Hawkins, the distinguished first black Cheerleader of OLEMISS. Courage counts for something. Yes!

My time is no longer mine and I miss my Muse running alongside my railroad tracks urging me to say something, anything. In between stealing sideways glances at my Muse and struggling mightily to satisfy demons born of my life’s choices, I have managed to hold on to just one passion – reading. I just finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book, Half of a Yellow Sun and if I don’t read another book for a long time, memories of this epic tome will keep me warm in the hibernation of the coming winter. But first, before I slink off into the trenches of my own doing, I must rise to salute Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the finest story tellers to come out of Africa in a long time. Out of the seething, smoldering ruins of our collective horrid judgment, a giant Phoenix is born, worthy prodigy of the master Phoenix Chinua Achebe. Achebe lives! Adichie lives! Hurrah for the resilience of the human spirit. Chimamanda, I celebrate the mystery of you, and I luxuriate in the reassuring warmth of your gift. I salute you, silent witness to a story that never left, that won’t go away. I salute you, insistent bugler of yet another coming.

This book starts out being about Nigeria in the sixties and the Biafran war. Ultimately, it is about our collective destiny in that failed state called Nigeria. A delightful cast of well-formed characters carries the burden of this book rather effortlessly: The cast is led by a set of twins; the vivacious Olanna and the enigmatic, mysterious Kainene, renaissance women, well schooled, and well traveled. A boy Ugwu arrives from the village to be a houseboy to “Master” Odenigbo, a university don and we witness the growth of the boy and Biafra’s dreams (and demise) through his awe-struck eyes. There is also Richard an English man loitering in Nigeria as a writer who also becomes Kainene’s lover.  It is an expertly written book, professionally edited, one that raises the bar for how great books should be written. In Half of a Yellow Sun, we see mature relationships, strong men and women comfortable in their individual roles within relationships and actually enjoying themselves. There is the liberated Olanna who actually turns down marriage proposals from her long-term lover because she is enjoying the relationship. Refreshing.

When I think of this book, I think of words like, awe, admiration. And envy. Envy at such a beautiful product. Adichie manages to cobble together several complex stories and she carries out this feat with amazing, unceasing, unrelenting grace. In writing the book, Adichie makes the point eloquently that we are the sum of our experiences. Harrowing is another word that will not let go of me – the ethnic cleansing, the inhumanity of it all and you ask, for what purpose? Everything is scarce; joy, food, sex, and when it comes, it is devoured in joyful song. What is it about sex and war? The sex when it happens is luscious and the reader’s lungs and loins erupt in unadulterated joy. Adichie brings together all of the principal characters for a day of reckoning. Well, almost all the principal characters. Unless I missed it, I did not read any mention of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe. You can almost forgive Adichie for not mentioning Azikiwe, Awolowo in this epic. They probably deserve to be deleted from memory, who knows…  Besides, this is a novel. Go write your own if you are that enamoured of those two figures.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a muffled collage of courage, grace, rage, injustice, horror, and the resilience of the human spirit. Breathtaking, simply stunning is how I would describe the experience of reading Adichie’s literary salvo. Reading this book was akin to taking an unforgettable field trip, an eclectic tour through the dainty halls of several eclectic minds. It is hard to believe that only one human being wrote this epic. And yes, in my humble opinion, this book is the first epic to come out of Nigeria since Chinua Achebe’s trilogy of books: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God. This book is so good, it is easy to forget that this is the product of research, of a most unjust war, a pogrom that came and went many moons before this story teller was born. I have to admit that I bought the book expecting it to be contrived – after all I thought, Adichie was not there during the war, what can she tell me about the war? I was pleasantly disappointed that my expectation was roundly rebuffed by this writer’s formidable strengths.

Adichie pulls off the stunning feat of fully immersing the reader in a past that is more glorious than today’s quagmire, civil war or no civil war. She captures with unnerving clarity, the unctuous self righteousness of Nigeria’s ruling class and her conniving intellectuals – a cultural pathology that thrives to this day. In the book as in today’s reality, we witness the aping of alien values, the total lack of originality in anything the contemporary Nigerian embarks on, from creative writing to creative kleptomania. The most comical representation of our condition is Harrison the Nigerian cook proudly displaying his knowledge of western recipes, and ribald ignorance of Nigerian recipes: He proudly shows off one of his signature counterfeit productions – “a bean and mushroom soup, a pawpaw medley, chicken in a cream sauce speckled with greens and a lemon tart as pudding!” Graham Greene should be dying of laughter in his grave.

Half of a Yellow Sun is several complex stories, simply told. Hints of pulp fiction tug at the reader’s arrogance and it says to the reader, Get off your high horse – why must communication be obtuse? The style grows on you, surprises you like a charming lover in the night, grabbing you from behind, stirring your loins, startling you with brutal clarity and slashing a smile-gash in your happy face.  And there is beauty in the book’s simplicity. It is sheer pleasure to luxuriate in the poetry of pretty words strung together daintily like lace.  And the attention to detail is intimidating – weeks after reading this book, I can still smell the flowers and the men’s cologne. Adichie does have a thing for flowers and scents.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a messy journey narrated with neat precision, at times, told languidly, at other times, told with malaria-feverishness and sometimes you wonder where this is all leading, where is Biafra in all of this, etc, but then if it was a tidy story it would be an awful book. Life is a mess. This book is a mess. This is a good book, this is a great book. And sometimes, the book does drift, seemingly aimlessly. One of the main characters, Olanna goes to Kano to visit an ex-boyfriend. The purpose of this trip is not quite clear – why this restlessness other than to show that an Igbo once loved a Northerner? In any case, any seeming drift in the book is more than compensated for by the delightful story oozing from virtually every sentence. It is like sitting in a verandah in Lagos (choose your favourite Nigerian city) and reveling in raw street theater.  The book’s chapters move deftly back and forth between the early sixties and the late sixties, between a gathering fear (apologies to the poet Olu Oguibe) and a relentless pogrom. This technique is effective in keeping the reader fully engaged in an absorbing story. Reading the book, I felt like I was watching a gripping movie. This should be made into a full length movie for those who choose not to or are unable to read about our history.

And three decades after that shame of a war, not much has changed. The corruption is eerily the same; actually one gets tired of reading about these things, the past posing as the present tense. Only in Nigeria.  We see ourselves in virtually all of the characters – Chief Okonji – the Finance Minister is a sadly familiar caricature, not much different from today’s jokesters in Aso Rock. Refried beans must keep for ever. Too bad for Nigeria. Adichie says this book is about Biafra. It seems to me that this is more than Biafra. This is really all about the horrid fate of the long-suffering people trapped in that failed state called Nigeria. We see African intellectuals at their most unctuous and self-serving. We see them in their nakedness, aping rather uncritically Western values, trying so desperately to be white folks. Graham Greene would love this book. The intellectuals put together a babble-fest at every opportunity as they cry louder than the bereaved in alien tongues. Nothing has changed today; if anything, things have gotten worse. After all these years, Adichie’s book is eerily contemporary because the social and cultural pathologies that gave birth to the pogrom called Biafra are roaring alive today, very much alive and hungry for another death of a dream.

In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie adroitly exposes the near-myth of physical geographic boundaries and sews together new geographic vistas that are not necessarily contiguous, and she challenges the reader to think out of the box of traditional relationships. Yes, the world has changed since Biafra. The reader upon reading the book can feel the palpable and lingering frustration of witnessing the fraying of hurtful memories, of injustices wilting away on the bloodied picket fences of changing boundaries and allegiances. Enemies are marrying enemies, creating new allegiances and new enemies. We do not know our friends, alas.

Adichie may be accused of reaching too much for balance, for objectivity. She is not going to endure herself to Biafra die-hards. This book is definitely not an uncritical sentimental hagiography of Biafra; indeed some people would be displeased at the searing look into the perfidy, the moral and leadership decay within the rank and file of the Biafran army. Adichie exposes the hypocrisy and the self righteousness of those who convinced the populace to go to a war they had no business fighting. Good warriors negotiate from a position of strength. From my perspective, the Biafran war was an unnecessary turkey shoot and Adichie’s story spreads the responsibility for that pogrom to all, not just the Federal side.

Half of a Yellow Sun is perhaps not the definitive book about Biafra. Those interested in an extensive reading on Biafra may do well to also do their own research, starting with the useful glossary of books at the back of Half of a Yellow Sun. War is war, full of broken limbs, bloody calabashes filled with decapitated heads and broken dreams. Adichie is not able to tell us what sets this particular war apart from the others. She does not try to and in a counter-intuitive way, I see this as one of the book’s strengths. Adichie does not try too much to please. The good news is that there is not a shortage of books about Biafra. Dr. Daniel Awduche has compiled a great list here. The book’s one strength is that although it is marketed as a book about Biafra, the reader’s senses are assaulted by a panorama of images that envelopes just about every land that is trapped in that country called Nigeria. The book is an amazing journey that is best savored by actually reading it.  Regardless, Adichie does a great job of confronting the enigma that was Biafra – in my view, a tragically flawed reaction to a horrid injustice

Adichie’s book is likely to stoke the debate about the use of contrived English to perhaps improved readability in the West and reach a wider market, a debate that was started with the release of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation. In the book, the hapless character Harrison employs a version of English that is strikingly similar to Iweala’s experiment with rotten, I would say, contrived English in Beasts of No Nation: “You are not knowing how to bake German chocolate cake?” “You are not knowing what is rhubarb crumble?” (p 166) Contrived English trumps Pidgin English one more time. It is mercifully not as cloying, not as annoying as Iweala’s abuse of the technique and Adichie executes it quite well. In a sense, she may have bestowed some credibility to Iweala’s experiment. Regardless once senses that the African writer still struggles to reach a mass market in the West through the use of interesting techniques – for instance Igbo sentences are italicized and immediately translated in English: “Yes! Yes! Ojukwu, nye anyi egbe! Give us guns! Iwe di anyi n’obi! There is anger in our hearts! (p 171)

Adichie does not look back in anger, she does not look back with just a clinical detachment; she makes us look back at history galloping back in fast furious reverse to challenge our current condition. Our collective destiny is history, fast forwarded, in reverse. Adichie’s book challenges us to have courageous conversations and assign responsibilities for the pogrom to all parties so that we may never pass this way again. It is a crying shame that after all these years there are no fitting monuments, no usable museum to the memory of Biafra. Adichie’s book has put all of that to rest. The restless spirits of our victims rustle through the pages of Half of a Yellow Sun. Buy a copy of this epic, read, relax and await yet another coming of our collective poor judgment.

Half of a Yellow Sun hints at shades of everything the reader has experienced, indeed we are the sum of our experiences. There are strong hints of George Orwell’s Animal Farm as the revolution that was Biafra turns into a dog-eat-dog race for survival. In his stirring poetry, the character, Okeoma the poet-warrior bears strong hints of Chris Okigbo:


With the fish-glow sheen of a mermaid,

She appears,

Bearing silver dawn

And the sun attends her,

The mermaid

Who will never be mine.” p 324

In Half of a Yellow Sun, the telling of our story breaks the reader into a thousand emotional pieces. It is like the story teller takes a wooden bat to all of your conscience and exposes you for the fake that you are. I have not felt this way since visiting the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and the Hector Petersen Museum in Soweto.  This book is a museum. And if you care about Nigeria, you must visit this museum.

 I salute you, Chimamanda.

The Wizard in Ngugi’s Craw

I did not enjoy reading Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s hefty almost 800-page tome The Wizard of the Crow. This is a shame, for I love Ngugi. I remember his book Weep Not Child with much fondness. I will always remember the chemistry between the two main characters young Njoroge and Mwihaki. As a boy, I fell in love with the way those two fell in love. Ngugi is a gifted writer and a noble son of Africa. But Ngugi has always been given to quixotic journeys; I say quixotic because I am not quite sure his experiments in this book were productive, especially to the extent that he has not been able to foster a substantive dialogue on what and how we should communicate our literature as Africans. The question remains hanging in the air: What should be our language of discourse? The Wizard of the Crow is short on analysis but long on theatrics. Any experiment as ambitious as Ngugi’s has to acknowledge that the novel as a medium is not a constant. Africa’s oral tradition breathes free and vibrant on YouTube, Facebook, and on blogs. In The Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi brings together an unlikely riot – of the voice, the written word, and the narrative – on print. It simply doesn’t work.

The Wizard of the Crow is a familiar, dated, perhaps tired tale. Think of the stereotypical African novel and its recurring characters. There is the supreme dictator (The Ruler) in an imaginary country (Abruria) teeming with long-suffering people, there are the fawning hangers-on, and there is the idealistic great black hope (Kamiti), scheming freedom for the masses. Throw in some magic realism and a tedious literary ride is born. Despite Africa’s best efforts, Idi Amin’s buffoonery is as dated as my platform shoes. We have new buffoons. This book is what happens to the writer stuck in exile for too long, living decades mummified in despair, fretting about the Africa that has moved on.

The reader wonders how Ngugi could spread tedium through almost 800 pages. The clue is in its unrelenting wordiness, displaying armies of words where a word (or blessed silence) would richly suffice. Ngugi is understandably very unhappy with Africa; he must process his anxieties and stress through writing because the Guinness book of Records may have just logged in the longest angriest riff on paper ever. I mean ever. It is sheer tedium, the book as a medium flies like a lead balloon under the weight of so many issues, several of them unresolved. The attempted use of humor, satire and hyperbole is grotesque and does little to mask Ngugi’s overly documented rage.

Ngugi’s unresolved anxieties and strong political views mar the quality of the book. The book provided absolutely no new insights into the African condition, whatever that may be and the observations appear dated – like a slide rule competing with the awesome wonders of an iPod. Africa has moved on, for good or for bad, a realization that stubbornly eludes Ngugi. Ngugi may still be stuck in the sands of his time. The reviews, mostly by Western reviewers do not get this, they are fairly swooning. They see Africa painted as one woeful place full of exotic Ben Okri type imagery. Even at that, Ngugi’s experiment with magic realism is simply farcical. Be warned: You are not going to get much in terms of hard hitting critical reviews of this book; the Western reviewers are largely patronizing. The late great John Updike provides a largely avuncular panning of the book but I agree with him when he says: “The author of this bulky book offers more indignation than analysis in his portrait of post-colonial Africa.”

Readers may have difficulty relating to the notion of a lone savior with a monopoly of good solutions walking around weighed down with his supreme sense of self-importance. Well meaning visionary statements are mistaken for community mandates and the anxiety is to replace the buffoon’s tyranny with that of the pen. It is truly farcical when you really think about it. The African Big Man lives in the tyranny of our politics and in the tyranny of our writers’ pens. Their alter egos as reflected in the idealistic do no wrong; the main characters of their books indict them as being clueless or indifferent to their role in Africa’s mess. What it boils down to is that these are autobiographic fantasies that involve the ME in the author, systems be damned.

 However, given Ngugi’s brave fight for justice in postcolonial Kenya, his work in ensuring Africa’s rightful place in the World history of literature, and the trauma of his forced exile, any assessment of his work ought to be nuanced. Ngugi put a lot of effort into this tome – six books in one, first written painstakingly in Kikuyu – and then translated into English. Ngugi remains a visionary; our writer-warriors should carry his ideas on their giant shoulders and continue the fight he started – on Facebook, YouTube and on blogs. I salute Bwana Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.

Plant a Tree, Cook with Firewood

I spend the summers in America cooking outdoors; steaks, hot dogs, chicken, corn, plantain, salmon and hamburgers. I prefer the charcoal grill, but I also use gas. Charcoal-grilled steaks, medium rare are to die for. Our children strip chunks of it hot off the grill. I actually consider cooking with firewood clean cooking, certainly cleaner than the environmental degradation that we witness here in America daily, not to talk of nuclear proliferation. So, the other day I shook my head in utter disbelief when I saw someone on Facebook hawking one wimpy NGO-funded “clean energy” appliance as a viable replacement for cooking with charcoal in Africa. The contraption can’t even cook for more than one overfed environmentalist at a time, not to talk of fueling an industrial size owambe party.

Urban sprawl has caused serious environmental and social issues in black Africa but a blanket denunciation of African practices is causing unintended consequences. I think it is patronizing for Westerners to come to our homes and teach us when and how to plant trees.  They must first teach themselves how to plant trees. Here in America they have planted all these trees close to their homes; however the result is deadly each time there is a thunderstorm. These days, trees crush cars and homes during thunderstorms and we have been known to lose power for days on end. At the traffic lights, policemen control traffic after trees have downed power lines. America may be legislating itself into a third world nation thanks to her environmentalists.

Nigeria, indeed Black Africa is not managing change properly. The urban flats of my childhood were not meant for wood stoves but they were used that way. We lived in our village for a period during the Nigerian Civil War and looking back there was a method to my people’s madness. The homes we lived in were comfortable, well ventilated and designed for the kind of cooking that is being vilified today by environmentalists.

In 2004, a Kenyan, the late Wangari Maathai, was awarded the Nobel Prize for – get this – planting trees. How patronizing. My people have been planting trees all their lives well before  Shell, BP and all of those other multinational corporations discovered sweet crude in Oloibiri.  Now they say we should not use firewood because it depletes the forests and sends noxious gases up to their heaven.  I don’t know what clean cooking means in this context, but tell me, how is firewood cooking dirtier than microwave cooking? How is it dirtier than gas cooking?

I am deeply suspicious of the motives and political agenda of environmentalists when it comes to African issues. They are berating the wrong people. When Nigerians are sufficiently angry they will turn on their leaders instead of creating little schemes for coping in hell. I ask again, what is wrong with cooking by firewood? What is wrong with an awareness campaign about reforestation? Is this how they solve the problem in the West? Why the drama? Some of us suspect the truth: This is big business.

The wholesale uncritical dismissal of African values and way of life by Western liberals is getting on my nerves. In their SUVs, they traipse Africa with expensive equipment taking pictures of the devastation engineered by their forefathers.  Africa is now one huge museum to them. Why are people dying of smoke inhalation? Where are people dying? Fix the reasons and perhaps we might not need these wimpy inventions that cannot cook for more than one liberal at a time.

Nothing would please me more than to send all NGOs in Nigeria and their environmentally unfriendly begging bowls packing. You don’t see me grilling with firewood inside my bedroom. The generators kill my people more than anything else. Send all the generators packing. I think it is insulting for anyone to suggest that we did not know how to cook safely until Western liberals came along. We have to look at the context: urban sprawl, layering new systems on the old, and the dynamics and dysfunction of unbridled consumerism.

Another example: Environmentalists are now urging Africans not to eat bush meat. We should beat them over their heads with a leg of antelope! This is exactly why deer have become suburban terrorists in America. Every day, herds of deer come knocking on our doors and giving us slaps, chasing our children all over the yard, crashing into our gas guzzling SUVs, and demanding stuff. The last time a deer collided with my SUV, it cost my insurance company thousands of dollars in repairs because the stupid deer had no insurance. And the police would not let me drag the useless dead animal to the firewood at the back of our home. They measured the antlers and declared that it was illegal to kill the sob. Nonsense.

I can’t prove it but environmentalists probably mean well for Nigeria; however the first order of business if they are to be successful is to listen to us Africans. We are human beings too, we might just tell you why things are the way you have described them.