Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Month: November, 2014

J. M. G. Le Clézio: Onitsha, their Onitsha

The novel Onitsha written by French author and 2008 Nobel laureate J. M. G. Le Clézio is a beautiful piece of fiction. Originally written in French and translated into English in 1997, it bears prose that steals your heart. Le Clézio can sustain quiet tension in a book and build up suspense. It does get silly in places where it succumbs to a puzzlingly mythical babble in which case it deteriorates from haunting prose to malarial hallucinations about the deities of Egypt and Ethiopia. As for the content and what it says about how the West sees Africans, it is an ugly book for it reveals the insidious patronizing attitudes of white liberals.

According to the blurb, “Onitsha tells the story of Fintan, a youth who travels to Africa in 1948 with his Italian mother to join the English father he has never met. Initially enchanted by the exotic world he discovers in Onitsha, a bustling city prominently situated on the eastern bank of the River Niger, Fintan gradually comes to recognise the intolerance and brutality of the colonial system and gives the novel a notably direct, horrified perspective on racism and colonialism.”  I agree with the blurb for different reasons. I think Onitsha is a racist book. You can smell Africa in Le Clézio’s Onitsha. Unfortunately, Africa reeks in his imagination: “Fintan breathed in the odour. It entered him, soaked into his body. Odour of this dusty earth, odour of the very blue sky, the gleaming palm trees, the white houses. Odour of women and children dressed in rags. Odour which possesses the town” (p20)

onitsha

Hear Fintan’s surprise as he comes in contact with Africans, when their ship lands in Africa from Europe: “Fintan discovered the source of the sound: the entire foredeck of the Surabaya was crowded with blacks! They crouched down and were beating with hammers on the hatches, the hull and the frames to remove the rust.” Blacks! You almost hear ‘Vermin!’ The first time he saw us, we were immediately labeled the other, apart from whites, human-like but not quite. In 1948. And once the book encounters our humanity, everything starts to get wretched, dark and savage. Europe is light; Africa is darkness. In 1948, the visiting white expatriate sees Africa as exotica and the otherness of the African reeks of savagery. We are talking of a time when our folks were returning home from England, armed with the Golden Fleece. In 1948, Nigeria’s premier university, The University of Ibadan was founded. This was after the era that inspired Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood, that wholesome memoir of childhood and family values. This is not the same Nigeria of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s epic autobiography, My Odyssey that so wonderfully captured the intellectual passion of 1930’s Africa.

In this semi-autobiographical tale, Le Clézio exposes the racism of the colonialists in the era in copious detail. Fintan and his mother Maou are saddened by the verbal and physical abuse that blacks endure in the hands of insensitive whites and the experience is quite gruesome. Black prisoners work in chains digging swimming pools for the pleasure of whites, getting injured as the walls collapse on them. In the process, though, Le Clézio seems to unmask his own prejudices as he describes Africans in the patronizing lingo invented and perfected by white liberals: “She has never cared for anyone as much as she cared for these people. They were so gentle, their eyes so luminous, their gestures so pure and elegant.  When she walked through the different neighbourhoods to reach the wharf, children came up to her, not shy, and caressed her arms; women took her by the hand, spoke to her, in the gentle language which hummed like music” (p118)

The research is sloppy and it shows. There is no excuse for what passes for Pidgin English in the book. What Le Clézio calls Pidgin English does not exist in West Africa, it was clearly contrived: “Big black fellow box spose white man fight him, he cry too mus!” p40. Go figure.  Le Clézio is at pains to showcase his knowledge of African gods, mythologies and history; unfortunately the result is error-prone. He places Benjamin Adekunle, the “Black Scorpion” on the Biafran side of the Nigerian Civil war (p193).  Sigh. Don’t ask me how Le Clézio got to Biafra from 1948.

In Le Clézio’s Africa, everything is pristine, filled with a contrived innocence. It is truly fiction so he could be forgiven for liberal applications of poetic license. Africa is storm buckets of thunder and rain and mud and more thunder. Everything is dark. Africans are subhuman and primitive. And sweetly angelic in a childlike way. The book is populated by black people with distended exaggerated features. The title of the book should be The Great White Hope Comes to Save Africa Again. Joseph Conrad, meet Le Clézio. This is history liberally distorted, romanticised to fit a liberal orthodoxy. How can a book written in the nineties be so bigoted? The real question is this: Why do many Western writers who write about Africa persist in seeing us as hapless sub-humans?

The many joys of fatherhood

When I was a little boy, I looked forward to being a father. We did not call them dads in those days, we called them ‘father’ or ‘papa’. Any other term of endearment was liable to get us in big trouble which usually meant an adult fist or something more malevolent colliding with a sensitive area of a child’s head. It just seemed at the time that my dad did not have much responsibility. Our main connection with Papalolo was extracting money from him. In retrospect, he was a generous giver, but at the time I remember us going to him for stuff with great trepidation. There was always drama accompanying any request. There would be the history lesson on how children of nowadays do not value money, blah, blah, blah. There would be the interrogation; “What do you need money for, do you think money grows on trees?”

Dad was the breadwinner and he made sure we knew it. He went to work in clothes that we had starched and ironed and in shoes that we polished so well we could see our teeth in their shine. He would return from the day’s job loudly protesting the stress of work, blah, blah, blah. One of us would be deployed to grab his briefcase (we don’t remember ever seeing the inside of that briefcase, maybe it was for show), one of us would take the shoes off him once he had sat down to continue his tale of woe about work and one would hand him a glass of cold water from the pot (we did not have a fridge at the time, we heard rumors that some families had it). Then my mother would, with great drama, produce his dinner. It just seemed like a great life, this patriarch that got his way without as much as snapping his fingers.

I am a father now and I can only say that I should sue my father; he cleverly hid all the indignities that fathers are subjected to in the household. The good news is that unlike the male praying mantis, our heads are not decapitated after sex. In my generation, men have lost the perks of patriarchy and added other responsibilities to the weighty ones that my father hid so well from us. For one thing, the children seem to be in charge around here, and heaven help you if you complain. They may call the police and social services on your black behind. The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer, perhaps inspired by a tall glass of cognac (VSOP, straight, no ice cubes), blurted out the other day that today’s children are “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.” This truth told under the influence inspired hundreds of angry essays in support of her great words like this one called, well, Why Parents Hate Parenting. We are about to #Occupy our kids’ bedrooms. Kids have gone from being our cheap labour to being our bosses.

Why, the other day, our teenager Ominira’s phone broke. I remember the day quite vividly, when she came to me very calmly and assured me that her phone was broken and we would need to go to the store right away to get a replacement. In Ominira’s world, breaking a phone is like breaking an arm, and our daughter’s pain threshold is pretty low, more like zero. We had to go to the phone store right away. Ominira goes everywhere with her friends, all 5,000 of them. They tweet, they Facebook, they instagram, they snapchat, they rarely see each other in person, in fact like every other member of her generation, she has only physically met five of her 5,000 friends.

So, we went to the phone store with the offending phone. Ominira was not happy with the phone; the stupid phone had made the mistake of falling into water all by itself. This is one stupid bumbling phone; I don’t understand why they call it a smartphone. Why would you drop inside water all by yourself? Ominira was in the car fuming at the world. She had commandeered her little brother’s phone because she needed to do some really important stuff with her friends on Facebook. Her little brother was unimpressed with the urgency of the moment and insisted on accompanying his own smartphone with Ominira to the store in case Ominira attempted to drop the phone in the water like she did her own phone by accident. This unnecessary move was not appreciated by Ominira and a huge fight broke out in the car with all 5,000 Ominira’s Facebook friends witnessing. This she accomplished by posting on her status the kinds of gory things she would do to her “doofus stoopid” brother once there were no parental witnesses. Little brother Lion Cub did not take kindly to these Facebook threats and blamed me for not allowing him to have a Facebook account, otherwise the whole world would know that Ominira has a boyfriend! Until that moment, I had not known this very important distressing news. Sigh! I want my mommy!

Of poetry, dead white men, and all that Jazz

A few years ago, the writer Bruce Wexler rose, apparently from a drunken slumber and declared poetry dead. [Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care? Newsweek, May 5, 2003]. The reaction to Wexler’s heresy was swift and furious. His dignity was assaulted by a million fatwas issued by the self-identified worshippers of poetry, proving Wexler’s point – that poetry is the only art form where the population of those who write it overwhelms the population of those who actually consume it. I disagree with Wexler. Poetry is not dead. And I think a more careful reading of Wexler would strongly suggest that he would agree with me. I do agree with Wexler on one point. Anyone can write a bad poem. That is the beauty of its art. But first we have to agree on what constitutes a bad poem.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the purists who would dismiss any poem that does not meet established standards of literary expression, and then at the other end, you have those who say, to hell with rules. There ought to be a happy medium. So, who is a poet in today’s world? I propose that the poets who live on in our hearts and minds are those who have, using the tricks of the ancients, adapted their medium to effectively communicate the word.  This last point is extremely important. Poets are indeed priests. As buglers of joy and of doom, they have to fashion out crisp messages to the people in the language that the people understand. In Africa, today’s poets stand the risk of closing the barn door after the flight of doom, because they are too busy waxing their messages into the rigor mortis of what Chinweizu would call obscurantism.

Our poets and thinkers must seek to use their gifts to make a difference in our societies. Our poetry should offer perspectives that are rooted deep in the fragrance of the land of our ancestors. We go back to the earth when we are stressed; we look back to the past for succor, when our present condition does not carry us back to the warmth of our mother’s hearth. But there is a danger in imagining that this is reality. For the average consumer does not understand these details. The average reader does not understand why there must be a formula; why there must be a set way to write poetry. Who makes these decisions? One sees a lot of insightful critiques that echo the works of Western writers but one is constrained to ask” Why would Western values be necessarily relevant to the way we tell our stories, the way we sing our songs? Has anyone ever attempted to create our own rules of engagement using the robust body of work that is out there? And how do we know that Western writers like TS Eliot were thinking of us as they wove complex thoughts into elaborate structures that were obviously bound to their own ancestral lands?

We are back to divining the difference between poetry and unadulterated drivel. I propose that the consumer is the ultimate arbiter of what is good poetry and what is painful to the eyes. But I miss the haunting lyricism and imagery of poets like the late great Okogbule Wonodi. Hear him sing to me:

But we have poured more wine
than the gods can drink
more than the soil can drink
and have become outcasts
dispersing the fishes
for which the baskets are laid
and the fisherman did not like us.

[Okogbule Wonodi, Icheke: IV]

Was Wonodi a bad poet? I would never know. Who cares? I hope that there are many more “bad poets” where he came from. Freed from the stifling confines of classrooms, I have taught myself to only pay for that which my heart seeks. I read the new poets and I am comforted by the kind of chants that used to make me jump on a coffee table and dance to the courage of my ancestor’s spirits. We come from a land of simple people who hide deep meanings inside simple words. One has to listen carefully to our people to get the insult or the accolade. I look for those kinds of poems to enjoy. The critic must not breathe on every piece that calls itself “poetry.” Some things are best left alone. If a poem turns out to be what the acerbic reviewer Randall Jarrell once referred to as giving “the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter,” I will simply move on quietly to a more worthy pursuit. Life is too short to be miserable. Poetry is not dead; it just needs re-packaging.

[Guest BlogPost] Stanley Onjezani Kenani: Waiting for departure in Port Harcourt

‘I am going to Nigeria!’ I said when the Africa39 list was announced.

 Online newspapers in Malawi did not know what to make of the news. ‘Malawian writers Stanley Onjezani Kenani and Shadreck Chikoti have been named  among 39 under 40,’ one paper wrote. In the comments section, an anonymous reader rightly asked: ‘What does that mean?’

 Another paper probably understood too much about what the news meant, because it wrote: ‘Kenani and Chikoti have been selected among 39 best African writers under the age of 40.’ They put a photo of a smiling me at the centre of the article. I weigh slightly over a hundred kilos, and my stomach looks like I am seven months pregnant.

First comment: ‘Is the man in the photo really under 40? Please, let us not be like African footballers, always understating their age.’ Farther down the comments section, a former classmate in college jumped to my defence. ‘I was in the same class with him,’ he wrote. ‘He was tiny before he started working for a hotel.’ But the news had by that time ceased to be about what the Africa39 list meant.

I wrote the editor of the online outfit to clarify that we were not 39 ‘best African writers under the age of 40.’ There were finer writers out there who were not on the list. I mentioned NoViolet Bulawayo as an obvious example. We were, instead, ‘39 of the most promising African writers under the age of 40’. Ignoring my point, he wrote back: ‘How much money have they given you for making the list?’

 I gave up.

But the way the news was received showed that Africa39 meant different things to different people. To me, it meant going to Nigeria to eat jollof rice. My work as an accountant gives me few opportunities to interact with like-minded individuals. In Geneva, Switzerland, where I live, there is hardly any friend I could meet and discuss writing with.

So I looked forward to interacting with all those wonderful people, colleagues I had known for a while like Rotimi Babatunde and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, and lots of others I would be meeting for the first time, among them the brilliant Kenyan poet Clifton Gachagua, whose poetry collection, Mad man at Kilifi, I was reading alongside Kei Miller’s awesome The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion.

I was curious about the format the Port Harcourt gathering was going to take. I hoped it would be like Macedonia’s Struga Poetry Evenings where, after reading our poems back in 2007, we poets would gather at the balcony of the Hotel Drim to drink free wine or beer or coffee while talking about Ezra Pound or any of the greats. Or Poetry Africa in Durban where I had the chance to sit down for dinner with Dennis Brutus two years before his death. In short, I hoped for a collegial atmosphere that would make it possible for me to build new friendships.

Port Harcourt, however, turned out to be a disappointment in some way – and I am speaking for myself. The only time the writers got to meet as one group was when they sat on the bus to go to the University of Port Harcourt, or to the Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre, or to the Alliance française.

Africa39  1There was an attempt at organizing a cocktail on the festival’s opening day. The only drink featured was fruit juice. It was a colossal failure.

But not all was lost. Those who knew each other before Port Harcourt gathered in smaller groups in the evenings to chat. They sat next to the swimming pool at the foot of the ten-storey Presidential Hotel where those who could afford ordered drinks from the hotel’s expensive poolside bar.

I got to know Eghosa Imasuen this way. Desperate to shake off boredom one evening, I wandered to join a group of people I was not familiar with. And there was Eghosa. And Lola Shoneyin. And Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. And Chibundu Onuzo. And a few other wonderful people.

Eghosa is the type of person that makes you feel as though the two of you have already met before. He started off with imitating my voice in a way that made everyone laugh. He had heard me earlier speaking on behalf of the other writers at the opening ceremony, and it was the delivery of that speech he imitated with admirable exaggeration. Great guy, Eghosa. I looked for a copy of his book, Fine Boys, but by the time I got it, he had already left the festival, depriving me of the chance for his autograph.

Ad hoc gatherings like these are what rescued the book festival from becoming too boring for me.  Organizers, friendly and helpful whenever you accosted them for help, gave me the overall impression of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment.

Africa39 2Days were long and empty, especially since there was only one event per day. Some of those once-a-day outings were not as satisfactory as I would have wanted them to be, because it mostly meant mentioning your name, which the audience were probably hearing for the first time, and in all likelihood forgot it as soon as you finished introducing yourself. You could also probably say a sentence or two about your work, and that was all. We were, after all, 22 of us, and moderating such a crowd was far from easy. Perhaps if it were any person other than the brilliant Ellah Allfrey as moderator, the events could have been without life.

I tried to enjoy the Nigeria I had come to see. I tasted the food and ventured into the streets. I saw excellent buildings of a city on the rise. I saw churches of various names and sizes. Cars seemed to be in a perpetual ‘go-slow’ or ‘hold-up,’ terms meant to classify various types of traffic jam. If Port Harcourt is like this, I wondered, what about Lagos?

On our way to the University of Port Harcourt, I saw a giant billboard touting the Rivers State development agenda. At the foot of that billboard a man was passing urine, and for a moment I wondered whether that was a kind of protest, that he was deliberately pissing on his state’s development agenda.

At the Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre, a poster on a building across the street said, ‘We must try our best to make the next governor of Rivers State an Ijaw man or woman.’

Horrified by such blatant tribalism, I said to the man standing next to me, ‘In Malawi, where I come from, that would be illegal.’ The man, probably Nigerian, said that maybe Nigerians were right to drop the pretences. ‘In Kenya, for instance,’ he said, ‘I hear such a poster would also be illegal. But, believe it or not, privately Kikuyus would in general say they want the next president to be a Kikuyu; and Luos would say they want a Luo.’

I ventured back into the Ken Saro-Wiwa Centre. I found that writers had quickly organized themselves for an impromptu show. Ricaredo Boturu from Equatorial Guinea read us a beautiful poem in Spanish; Chibundu Onuzo sang, Nana Brew-Hammond and others read from the Africa39 anthology or recited poems of their own. Glaydah Namukasa presented an interesting piece in Luganda.

But aside from such flashes of interesting outings, the entire event, on my part, passed with me lying on bed and yawning, waiting for departure.

Finally, we left. At the airport, the security guard nearly blocked me from proceeding to the departure gate. Apparently, he did not understand French and German – the only languages written on my Swiss residency permit.

About five people inside the airport asked me for money: the police who searched my bag, immigration officials who stamped my passport and security guards who screened my hand luggage. But it was the sixth person who impressed me, because he asked for a book. I gave him José Saramago’s The year of the death of Ricardo Reis.

We were three hours early for the flight, but an interesting chat with Tope Folarin made those hours fly by unnoticed. Tope’s work ethic left me so inspired that I boarded the plane looking forward to a lot of writing back home.

As my plane shot into the dark skies of the Port Harcourt night, I told myself that it had certainly been worth my while to come, to see the Nigeria I had always wanted to visit. I wished, however, that the event had been shorter and more compact.

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stanleyStanley Onjezani Kenani is a writer from Malawi. Shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2008 and 2012, he was named as one of the Africa39. His short story, The Old Man and the Pub, is part of the Africa39 anthology edited by Ellah Allfrey and published by Bloomsbury in October 2014. An accountant, he currently lives and works in Switzerland.