Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: African Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is new here? VS Naipaul would approve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nigeria is not a country: Of ogbono, snails, sex, eccles, and hell’s longing

Yemisi, I have saved the best words for you. For you…

My son is the reason behind my forthcoming book Longthroat Memoirs. Even if I loved stories before he arrived, I had no strong motivation to collect them and examine them in the context of food. He woke me up at 5am to cook breakfast and kept me on my feet all day cooking. I angry, exhausted, depressed and raging against everything. The necessity of cooking day in day out produced two and a half years of writing for a Nigerian newspaper on food and a faltering blog on food. And it also produced Longthroat Memoirs.

– Yemisi Aribisala (November 7, 2015), in the essay, Mother Hunger

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There are many reasons why you must read The Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, Yemisi Aribisala’s lovely volume of essays, published by Cassava Republic Press. One: It is a gorgeous book, professionally done, one that proudly adorns my coffee table, Cassava Republic Press exceeded my lofty expectations on this one. Two: Aribisala dispenses with the pretense of narrative through fiction and tells her stories straight. Thus, unburdened with rules, the stories fly out of her fecund mind, lush rivers of thought feeding into the reader’s mind-road. In the process, with muscular essays, she joins thinkers like Chinua Achebe in rejecting the stereotype of the African writer as a mere storyteller, not a thinker. Three: She successfully injects respect into Nigerian cuisine with well-researched pioneer work and taunts the stereotype of Nigerian food as stodgy and unimaginative. Four. The Longthroat Memoirs introduces you to one of Africa’s finest essayists, an erudite thinker who has masterfully surfed the waves of the digital revolution to force feisty and important debates on a breathtaking range of subjects from feminism to the texture of moin-moin.  Compared to worthy compatriots whose books are published in the West, she is relatively unknown. If you don’t write a book published in the West, you are invisible, you have no voice. This sad reality begs the question: Who speaks for Africa? The likes of Aribisala who write for Africans are hidden in plain sight in favor of those who italicize their egusi and twist their words and accents to fit foreign (Western) tastes.

Some of the most important debates on African issues have ensued online thanks to many of Aribisala’s powerful essays. She has, more than virtually any of our writers of stature influenced the trajectory of modern thought within the African literary/intellectual community. She will not be recognized this way, but be defined and limited by the one book she has published. The Longthroat Memoirs is an awesome book, no ifs, no buts about it, but it is only the gorgeous tip of the impressive work Aribisala has been putting out for many years online, starting with Farafina magazine. I have old copies of the now defunct Farafina Magazine, where she was founding editor, that show that Aribisala (Yemisi Ogbe at the time) was defiantly appropriating English as her own. As an example, in her epic essay, Giving it all away in English (Number 6, August 2006, reproduced by Chimurenga in 2015), she wonders impishly: “If we are progressive enough to understand that Jamaicans have made the English Language comfortably theirs in spite of colonization, why haven’t we successfully done the same in Nigeria without condemning those who speak with and accent or make grammatical mistakes to purgatory for the incompetents and erudite?” She was talking about the appropriation of English as an African language many years before it became the burden of a chic debate.

There are more compelling reasons to read The Longthroat Memoirs. Historically African writers have treated food and sex at best as a collective afterthought, but many times as taboo subjects. Reading through African fiction from Achebe to Adichie, one gets the definite sense that African characters rarely eat or have sex, and when they do there are enough apologies to fill the River Limpopo. The single-story narrative of poverty porn hawked by many African writers does not associate Africa with good food and great sex. To hear many of these writers say it, Africa is a land of stick figures, distressed disease-ridden pretend humans leading meaningless lives, stumbling from war to pestilence, gouging on empty air – or the occasional road kill. To be sure, there are delightful exceptions; one of my favorite passages in Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn describes a feast to die for in his bosom friend’s house. He tells the tale with much pride and one marvels at the fusion of friendship and repast.

The good news is that things are changing; a not-too silent revolution is happening among African writers, they are re-tooling the narrative to redefine writing from Africa and to include the sum total of the experiences of the continent’s citizens. In Longthroat Memoirs, Aribisala ups the ante with a cunning and stunning way of writing a memoir that connects the rich dots of humanity from her lived life, to the rest of us. And food (accompanied by notions of sexuality) is the common thread that connect the dots, from ekoki in Calabar to eccles in London. Aribisala talks about herself as if she is talking about food and by the end of this rich volume of essays, you can pretty much piece together much of her life’s journeys, to the extent that she lets you. You sigh in awe as she talks about her life with a near-clinical detachment and then you fall in love with this quietly defiant warrior who is determined to live life on her own terms, regardless. So what is this book about? Many reviewers have called it a book about Nigerian food. It is and it is not. It is like calling Achebe’s Things Fall Apart a book about a simple farmer and his yams. Perhaps we should return to Aribisala’s passion and say that she used food as a delicious basis to permit us a peep into our lives, anxieties and joys and to demonstrate that our varied experiences as human beings are like the many rivers that run through the earth; perhaps they end in the same place, who knows?

Aribisala’s book is a multi-dimensional tour-de-force; we learn about Nigerian regional cooking and cuisine, and we find out that despite its exotic ways and crude, if cute instruments of measurement (who measures ingredients with the precision of empty tins of tomato paste?) it is complex and is governed by rules of science, and art, spirituality, and in some cases superstition. You learn all of this with prose remarkable for its beauty and brilliance. Aribisala is the legendary journalist Peter Pan Enahoro with even more substance. And one remembers Achebe’s brilliant essays in the way she uses food as the palm oil that aids the digestion of life’s lessons. Achebe once stated that he wrote children’s books because the ones from the West were not written for his children. Decades from now scholars will marvel at Aribisala’s prodigy, this warrior who wrote about Nigerian cuisine and culture in a way that has never ever been done before. This is great stuff, As an aside, I can visualize Aribisala teaming up with the itinerant TV personality chef Anthony Michael Bourdain traipsing the great nations that make up Nigeria and tasting the various degrees of ogbono that are out there. Better yet, I would subscribe to an online portal dedicated to her mind. But I digress.

I digress. Back to the book. The Longthroat Memoirs is a hugely ambitious undertaking which serves to prove that Nigeria should be a continent. Yes, Nigeria is a large country and anyone who tries to capture all of Nigeria’s cuisine and its various shades and iterations will die of unresolved dreams. Hell, in my village, you can tell ogbono from clan to clan. You can taste the changing earth and seasons as ogbono, that sauce of the gods, roams from clan to clan.  Starting with Calabar, Aribisala really concentrates on cooking from certain regions largely in the South, including mouth-watering forays into the riverine and Edo speaking regions of Nigeria’s old Midwest. Even at that it is an ambitious undertaking. As Aribisala finds out, Nigeria is a nation of hundreds of little nations.  In the end, she triumphs as she wraps her hands and her head around that complex nation space called Nigeria. Writing with wry humor and intimidating brilliance, the reader learns of everything from meat substitutes to sex. She explores the mystery and myths of the ingredients of soup and sex in Nigeria. She struggles with the definition of Nigerian “soup” until she gives up triumphantly and declares that there is no comparison; there is soup and there is soup. When one calls ogbono soup, a lot gets lost in the translation. Here, soup is an indigenous Nigerian word, it is not English. It is certainly not sauce.

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Aribisala’s passions, heart and soul are firmly rooted in the soil of Nigeria’s ancestral lands, and in soaring prose-poetry she lets her angst rip. Outside of Nigeria she is inconsolable. Here is a poignant definition of exile:

You just can’t buy local chicken in Brixton or Peckham High Street. Not the kind that tastes Nigerian. The plantains are a rip-off. They are not sweet. They are pretenders. The yams are tired and shrunken from travelling so far. There is no fresh afang to be bought, no fresh pumpkin leaf. The ogbono seeds are not first-rate; you can smell rejection on them. (pp 88-89)

Yes, The Longthroat Memoirs is about cooking, life, sex, patriarchy, misogyny, love, loving, ethnic and class distinctions, lust, longing, exile and the nostalgia for home; all those ingredients that go into making what passes for living in Nigeria and elsewhere. From Aribisala’s perspective. It’s all fascinating. And she pulls it off. There are forty-two essays in this volume, if you include the introduction, which is a full-blown essay and an excellent summary of what the book is about. Indeed, the introduction qualifies as a great self-review and enough excuse to buy the book. Scholars will have their hands full deconstructing all that is in these essays, each one is the proverbial dry meat that fills the mouth that will keep a class of inquisitive students entertained and educated.

Each essay deserves its own review. Indeed, this text should be required reading in online multidisciplinary courses at the tertiary level, it is too rich for just leisurely reading. You will fall in love with the essay My Mother, I will Not Eat Rice Today, a wildly hilarious and brilliant deconstruction of social conditions in Nigeria via a little boy’s culinary anxieties. Here, Nigeria comes alive and you do not need pictures to feel and taste the land. It is a great riff on Lagos. And Lagos comes alive, you can feel the breeze strolling across the lagoon. It features also a good recipe for jollof rice and some of Aribisala’s best prose. In Akara and Honey, the prose is so good you might as well be eating every letter of every word and be calling it akara. Sigh. Oh and Aribisala has a recipe for akara that she swears is the perfect therapy for PMS. How? Go and read it! Kings of Umani is a throaty rejection of the ubiquitous Maggi bouillon cube in favor of making stock from scratch.

Letter from Candahar Road is so poignant and funny, one remembers Soyinka narrating how he smuggled bush meat into the West and risking being the first Nobel Laureate to be arrested for poaching. Okro Soup, Georgeous Mucilage is about the many ways to cook okro, mucilaginous things and hints of sex and it also reminds the reader of a time when ships sailed to Nigeria bearing Shackleford Bread. It is about the pull of home and the purgatory that is Babylon.  Longthroat Memoirs, the essay that bears the title of the book, is a lovely ode to the land, jazzy, laconic but still taut with longing. Aribisala recreates the streets of Ibadan with the dexterity of an orange seller peeling oranges with knives fashioned out of empty margarine tins. You must read The Snail Tree, a free-flowing discussion about everything from snails, to sex, to Wainaina Binyavanga with everything thrown in between. It starts out with quiet defiance and quiet force and ends in quiet defiance and quiet force:

I have saved the best words for you. For You. There are places in a woman that a penis will never reach. I have said it. And what I mean to say and don’t feel under any pressure to reiterate, but will say again anyway because I was asked for my opinion, is that sex is overrated. (p 111)

In Fainting at the Sight of an Egg, impish sentences troll the Nigerian condition with deadly accuracy. There are many uses for an egg, we find out, including as a test for virginity and you laugh like a maniac as she lampoons a fridge suffering epileptic power supply. In Sweet Stolen Waters, every sentence is a deliberate work of art communicating something – with flair and attitude. There are all these sentences writhing with energy, turgid from sexual suggestiveness. This book is horny. When Aribisala riffs on plantains, the reader’s loins stir with longing and wonder:

They are luscious and thick and the yellow colour of ripeness burns holes in the retinas. Frying them is sacrilegious; they must be steamed in their skins. When they are removed from their skins they look too good to eat, like beautiful golden rods. Their texture is soft, spreading slightly on the tongue. They’re sweet with hints of treacle, hot all the way into the depths of the stomach, every atom delicious in every ramification. (p 148)

Aribisala loves the land and her seas and she writes about them with such tenderness, it is sometimes heartbreaking. Ogbono is a goddess, and rightfully so, says the essay, A Beautiful Girl Named Ogbono. Only Aribisala can dredge up romantic notions about ogbono soup, who knew? This essay is the most comprehensive study of the effect of first rate palm oil on the quality of ogbono soup. It puts the researchers of Nigeria to shame, they should go burn their degrees. To Cook or Not to Cook reads like a well thought out feminist manifesto, immensely readable and one that one can relate to because it is grounded in the reality and context of life in the ancestral lands of Nigeria. Between Eba and Gari muses on bigotry, ethnic anxieties and the politics of food jokes. Ila Cocoa is pure delicious prose-poetry. Here the recipe is the story. Brilliant. In the prose-poetry of Fish, Soups and Love Potions, one remember the haunting beauty of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.

River Oyono is a smoke-grey cloak animated by a strong wind. It is, in fact, only a small conceited river. It embraces the Atlantic Ocean for a passionate 24 km. Just before the open seas, there is an unusual meeting point of brackish and fresh seawater, creating an environment that provides stunning produce for the markets in Calabar. They say you will find fish there that you will not find anywhere else in the world. (p 275)

Peppered Snails is a stifled climax, the closest Aribisala would allow the reader peek at a love story. Here, Aribisala, is the composite of all those women gathered around a tripod, cooking, laughing and singing songs of the oppressed. Bush cuisine is a delight as we encounter what the white man would call game or venison. Read The Market Place and remember Molara Wood’s enchanting short story, Night Market in Indigo, her book of short stories.

Aribisala probably hates labels but she is an Afropolitan, with eclectic tastes that range from Rex Lawson to Sergei Rachmaninoff. Still the sea draws her near with her mucilaginous tentacles. The trademark superciliousness of the African writer is there in full force. There is the obtuseness of Soyinka: When Aribisala says, “Local olfaction collapses the astringency of smoke into the idea of fresh air, as if that were possible,” one remembers Soyinka’s “Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes” and one chuckles, with great fondness for these weird ones. Yes, the book sometimes comes across as too rich, like too rich soup. Sometimes you feel like you are reading Teju Cole of the fine mind, with the refined senses, of writers of color who have traveled to all these places, eaten all these wondrous things while listening to music that comes out of rare and expensive pianos instead of from empty Fanta bottles. Burdened with a mind on steroids, she overthinks things. Sometimes one just wants to eat, shit and fuck. Why the drama? But then, that could be this reader’s problem, to be a philistine, a peasant autodidact should be a crime.  Yes. Aribisala is aware of her wealth and she flaunts it. The book is an embarrassment of riches, it is not gaudy but everything is in this pot and you wonder what will happen when this pot is exhausted, will you eat again? The photographs are nice but they only made me hungry for more. Collaboration with photographers and graphic artists would have been an even nicer touch. I miss hot links to the various terms and recipes. A digital version is not available, which I find disappointing.

The Longthroat Memoirs is also a conversation about what gets lost in the translation when you express yourself in an alien language, as I have argued elsewhere and ad nauseam. What does the term “fattening room” really mean in Calabar? We may be relying too much on a colonial and racist interpretation and turned a once honored ceremony into a pejorative. Today, post colonialism, the kitchen is the most visible totem of subjugation. Did we have kitchens before the coming of the white man? It is a great question: In my village, there was more clarity in roles between men and women. The men were the hunters and gatherers and all the spoils came home to the women who managed spoils and the household. There was no word for “kitchen.” These days there is a perversion of culture and women and children are the victims. Aribisala sometimes trades in stereotypes, put-downs, and stick figures and after a dozen essays it begins to grate on the reader’s nerves:

The archetypal businessman in Calabar is the civil servant, married with three children, two house-helps, a complicated and dependent extended family, two cars and a racy mistress with a large bottom who owns a small boutique. He closes work at about 4 p.m., and with so much free time on his hands, he would be ungrateful not to carouse in it. He is a devout Presbyterian, goes to church on Sundays, makes love to his wife once a month, visits his mistress once a week and fills the rest of his schedule with slender UniCal girls who have stomachs like chopping boards and skin smooth as processed shea-butter.

The antiquarian fattening rooms where women are still sent to grow love handles and learn the intricacies of how to pamper men’s personalities into that of suckled babies might be on their way out, but that spirit of male entitlement to as many available women and young girls as are willing remains.

Women are indoctrinated from a young age into the mindset that men have all the advantages and, to be truly successful, a woman must somehow attach herself to a successful man, be it brother, husband, uncle, lover or sugar daddy. Enter that necessary artillery among artilleries: cooking. A woman must cook well; very, very well. Sex is a given, but it doesn’t have to be outstanding sex. Sometimes the man wants a docile lover, but there is no compromise when it comes to food. A man will not marry a woman who cannot cook (a true abomination), nor will he emotionally desert a wife who can cook to play with a mistress who can’t (a ridiculous proposition). A suitable wife must be a good cook, attractive, homely, God-fearing and must come with a guarantee that she will bear children. A shrewd mistress must be a great cook; flatter diabolically; keep a scented, relaxed, undemanding second home where foot massages are spontaneously administered; know how to at least pretend some degree of sexual kinkiness; and know how to engage a man for as long as possible by whatever means necessary. (pp 277-278)

The Longthroat Memoirs is a great compilation of a fraction of Aribisala’s essays, most of them from her days at the brainy but ultimately troubled NEXT newspapers where she ran a blog. There is the equivalent of several volumes of books of her works scattered all over the Internet. It is a sign of the times that the enterprising internet-savvy reader can find some of them online (for example, the luscious Fish soup as love potions as well as this excerpt in The Guardian). Chimurenga has a rich archive of her works here that shows the breath-taking range, vision and courage of Aribisala, from an insightful essay on the artist Victor Ehikhamenor, to a review of Adichie’s Americanah. Google searches will find her brilliance scattered all over the place like this essay on Nigeria and the culture of respect. There are good interviews of her (here, here and here) that provide rich insights into this quirky goddess of words. It is sadly ironic that The Longthroat Memoirs will probably be used to define Aribisala’s contributions to writing. That would be a huge disservice to her prodigy and industry, she is easily one of Africa’s most quietly influential thinkers.

This brings me to my pet peeve: The unintended effect of using the book as the sole yardstick of writing is to severely underestimate the worth of the African writer.  When hard print was the main medium of literary expression (as in books), it was appropriate to use the book as the sole determinant of a writer’s output. In the 21st century, in the age of that infinite canvas called the Internet, this yardstick is a travesty and especially unjust to African writers who are increasingly turning to the Internet for relief from mediocre or non-existent publishing industries. Aribisala should be remembered in writing history as the total sum of her works as compiled (albeit haphazardly) on the Internet. When NEXT newspapers folded, the proprietor simply shut down the website and writers like Aribisala were left with nothing but drafts as evidence of work done over a period of several years. The Longthroat Memoirs, to the extent that it beautifully recreates those essays is perhaps the best evidence that at least as an archival tool, the death of the book is a tad exaggerated. Still, I dream of an online library where there will be entire digital books like The Longthroat Memoirs with hot links to explain stuff, with forums for debates on the several issues that Aribisala so coyly throws up. Readers would happily pay for the service. I will gladly pay. Yup, to be at the table listening to this eclectic, quirky thinker from Hades’ lascivious kitchen, cerebral dominatrix, talk about snails, mucilage and love in one breath, and on her own terms, coolly indifferent to your pressing needs, knowing that she will feed you and love you in time, on her own terms. Now, that is a book to die for. A reader can only dream.

The 2016 Caine Prize: The burdens of identity and fading memories

The 2016 Caine Prize shortlist is out and the stories have the African literary community  abuzz: Abdul Adan’s, The Lifebloom Gift, is a dark, troubling story about sexuality and other identities; Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, is a dark, fascinating, and brilliant story about identity, and gentrification; 2013 Caine Prize winner, Tope Folarin’s Genesis, is a dark, haunting commentary on mental illness and a heart-warming story about children growing up in the shadows of their parents’ and Utah’s anxieties; Bongani Kona’s At Your Requiem, is a dark tale of childhood wars (rivalries, child sexual abuse, etc.); and Lidudumalingani’s Memories We Lost, is a dark, affecting tale about sibling and communal love and mental illness. You get the point. It’s all dark, these writers thrive on the edges of a dark, dark, world.

Identity. There is a good conversation to be had: What is African Writing? Who is the African writer? What should the African writer write about? Should we care? This year’s stories shove those questions in the reader’s bemused consciousness. These stories, apart from their unremitting darkness, seem to be about identity (bending). It is called the Caine Prize for African Writing, however it would be interesting to do a study of the places of abode of all the shortlisted writers since inception. African writers love to settle in the West; those that are left behind might as well be in the West, because where they live and love in the lush spaces of Cape Town, Abuja and Lekki could hardly be classified as the Africa of their stories. The Ugandan writer Bwesigye bwa Mesigwire’s question, The Caine Prize for African Writing: Offsetting the continental-diaspora deficit?, remains a debate. Last year, four out of the five shortlisted writers lived abroad in the West. Of the five shortlisted writers of 2016, three live abroad and the other two live in South Africa. Maybe we should call it the Caine Prize for Diaspora Writing. Nah, let’s just call it the Caine Prize, period.

Did I have trouble staying awake while reading the stories? Well, a few  of the shortlisted stories are well written, feature muscular thinking and a truly engaging, but in some cases,  it is a chore for the average reader to stay engaged. Why? Let me make bold to say that this is no longer how we enjoy our stories, not in the 21st century. Today, literature as we know it struggles, and is becoming a dying middle class pastime. As I read some of these stories, I could see people reading them, shrugging halfway, dumping them and moving on to a heckler’s social media timeline. There is a new army of storytellers on the Internet and social media; they have become incredibly influential even as traditional writers jostle for space in the cafes of America and Europe to write traditional pieces for literary prizes.It is our loss, thanks to a failure of (literary) leadership. There should be an innovative way to bring the literature of old to social media and let the  young feast deep on beautiful – and instructive stories. How that is done remains a mystery but it is clear that the traditional way of looking at literature is becoming threatened by the new writing.

 abdul_adanSo what are these stories about? Much of Adan’s The Lifebloom Gift reads like creative nonfiction, sometimes like mere reportage, but it is fairly engaging nonetheless. There is a good interview of Abdul Adan here; I would like to ask him where he rents his demons from. In this story he fights terrifying images that include “giant snakes slithering on bare backs of sunbathers, the kisses of toothless elderly Kazakh couples, the penetrative mouths of hyenas as they disembowel fleeing prey, the longing eyes of Akita dogs, the sweaty waists of African female dancers, the heaving chests of death-row inmates on the execution gurney, the tight jaws of some vindictive men.” And the reader is awed by Adan’s inquisitive energy:

 Ted himself told me that to experience something, one had to touch it. He denied the existence of anything he couldn’t touch, including air, the sun, the sky, the moon, and people he hadn’t touched or at least brushed shoulders with. The untouched individual, he said, is a nonentity. To claim a place in Ted’s gloriously green universe, the individual has to be touched.

Arimah-320Arimah, the Africa regional winner of the 2016 Commonwealth short story prize is a highly regarded writer whose stories regularly make the rounds of prestigious literary magazines. Here is a good interview of her in the New Yorker. Her story, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky is perhaps the most complex and innovative offering on the shortlist. It is playful, experimental, ambitious and quite innovative, with disciplined, gorgeous prose thrown in. This sci-fi story is about love, longing, sexuality, race, racism, boundaries, and class. Arimah upends traditional notions of boundaries and identities with sweet muscle and deftly returns the reader to the present reality. This is not just back to the future. This is back to the future – and the now. Imagine a  near apocalypse:

 Most of what had been North America was covered in water and a sea had replaced Europe. Russia was a soaked grave. The only continents unclaimed in whole or in part by the sea were Australia and what was now the United Countries but had once been Africa. The Elimination began after a moment of relative peace, after the French had won the trust of their hosts. The Senegalese newspapers that issued warnings were dismissed as conspiracy rags, rabble-rousers inventing trouble. But then the camps, the raids, and the mysterious illness that wiped out millions. Then the cabinet members murdered in their beds.

In a delightful play on today’s global reality, there is a global upheaval, and those that were displaced and offered succor (whites) triumphed and the hosts (people of color) were none the better for their generosity. You chuckle wryly as  the protagonist observes that a roomful of the children (of color) of the displaced “was as bare of genius as a pool of fish.” It is a lovely story, there are all these sophisticated sentences showing off deep beauty:

The only time she’d felt anything as strongly was after her mother had passed and her father was in full lament, listing to the side of ruin.

folarin

Oxford. 8/7/13. Bodleian Library. The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013. Winner, Tope Folarin. Picture by: David Fleming

Folarin’s Genesis is about a tough childhood that manages to touch all your emotional spots. In this seemingly semi-autobiographical piece (Folarin is quite candid about his mother’s health issues as this interview shows) every word is a living breathing witness of the struggles of young children trying to survive a war:

There is the sweet pain of the parents’ exile in America, away from Nigeria:

But this was America. And they were in love. They moved into a small apartment in Ogden, Utah, and began a family. I came first, in 1981, and my brother followed in 1983. Dad attended his classes during the day while Mom explored the city, and at night my parents held each other close and spoke their dreams into existence. They would have more children. My father would start a business. They would become wealthy. They would send their children to the best schools. They would have many grandchildren. They would build their own version of paradise on a little slip of desert in a country that itself was a dream, a place that seemed impossible until they stepped off the plane, shielding the sun from their eyes, and saw for themselves the expanse of land that my father had idly pointed to on a fading map many years before.

 There is the deep pain of the burden of the mother’s descent into mental illness and resulting marital abuse:

My mother’s illness began to reveal itself to us shortly after we moved into our two bedroom apartment, a tiny place near the center of town with pale yellow walls and bristly carpet. Mom’s voice, once quiet and reassuring, grew loud and fearsome. Her hugs, once warm and comforting, became cold and rigid. And then Mom became violent—she would throw spoons and forks at my father whenever she was upset. She quickly worked her way up to the knives.

 Kona’s At Your Requiem is your traditional African writing fare. Delivered in the first person, it reads like a piece of a long work in progress, perhaps a book. It is ostensibly about childhood and the ravages of adult dysfunctions and the quiet horror of child sexual abuse:

One night Aunt Julia was naked when I got under the duvet. It was winter. I remember the percussion of raindrops splashing against the tiled roof. She held me close, tight, my head pinned against her breasts. I pushed her away, or tried to, but she held firm. She unbuttoned my pyjamas. I lay in there, limp, my eyes wide open. I felt her bony fingers, cold against my chest, circling lines around my ribcage. ‘My beautiful boy,’ she whispered, as she kissed my belly button. ‘You’re my little husband. Who’s my little husband? You’re my little husband.’

 I think I cried, but I’m not sure.

bongani_konaThis was my least favorite read; deadly proxy for the stereotypical African writer’s cringe-worthy self-absorption, narcissistic, with a false sense of the invincible reeling out paragraph after paragraph of familiar, tired reportage. Kona’s story dredges up familiar issues, it is social commentary (child abuse) wrapped in the dignified toga of fiction, like stories made to order for an African NGO’s  hustle. The design is awkward, defective even. It is a forgettable story considering that it is a crude attempt at magic realism; one of the two main protagonists commits suicide, is hastily resurrected, presumably for the benefit of the Caine Prize, goes back in time to assist the author to tell a too tall tale. Too bad; the character – and the story should have been left alone to die and rest in peace. It doesn’t help that Kona’s story suffers from sloppy editing. There is documented evidence that at one time the story may have been written in the third person. And the attempt to resuscitate Dambudzo Marechera’s spirit: “You got your things and left.” SMH

Lidudmalingani It is easy to fall in love with Lidudumalingani’s Memories We Lost. It seems autobiographical, this tale of a community’s attempt to help a family deal with mental illness, but don’t be fooled; Lidudumalingani is an awesome artist, and he writes as one who knows and loves his corner of Africa intensely:

 I stared out into the landscape that began in my mother’s garden and stretched far beyond sight. The sun was setting behind the forest and dust was floating everywhere. Where the dust was dense, one could see it sway this way and that way as if in the middle of a dance. A sophisticated dance, the kind that, I imagined, happened in other worlds, very far from the village. The village was settling into repose. The cold summer air had begun to torment the villager’s bare legs and arms. Everything was in silhouette, including the horses that trotted across the veld, the cattle that lowered their heads to graze, and the water that flowed down the cliff. The mountains, ancient but nevertheless still standing, were casting giant shadows over the landscape. The shadows stretched so far from the mountain that they began to exist as if they were solid entities on their own.

 … Those without torches or candles walked on even though the next step in such darkness was possibly a plunge down a cliff. This was unlikely, it should be said, as most of them were born in the village, grew up there, got married there, had used that very same field as their toilet for all their lives, and had had in overlapping periods only left the village when they went to work for the white man in large cities. They had a blueprint of the village in their minds; its walking paths, its indentations, its rivers, its mountains, its holes where ghosts lived were imprinted in their blood.

 And on and on the narrative goes in seductive prose; portraits everywhere. Lidudumalingani’s eyes are a pair of powerful cameras that combine with his talent for prose to engage the reader on a journey of love and pain. Incidentally there is a good piece here on his eye for photography. I thank the Caine Prize for introducing me to Lidudumalingani’s restless and eclectic world. And oh yes, I have a long review of his story on Brittlepaper (here).

So what do I think about all of this? It is interesting, Alison Flood, writing in the UK Guardian about Tope Folarin, notes the comments made by Delia Jarrett-Macaulay about the emergent theme of the Caine Prize entries.

The five shortlisted stories were chosen from 166 submissions, representing 23 African countries. Chair of judges, the writer and academic Delia Jarrett-Macauley, said there had been an increasing number of fantasy and science fiction stories submitted this year, also noting a “general shift away from politics towards more intimate subjects – though recent topics such as the Ebola crisis were being wrestled with”.

The shortlist, she said, is “an engrossing, well-crafted and dauntless pack of stories … It was inspiring to note the amount of risk-taking in both subject matter and style, wild or lyrical voices matching the tempered measured prose writers, and stories tackling uneasy topics, ranging from an unsettling, unreliable narrator’s tale of airport scrutiny, to a science-fictional approach towards the measurement of grief, a young child’s coming to grips with family dysfunction, the big drama of rivalling siblings and the silent, numbing effects of loss,” said Jarrett-Macauley. “The panel is proud to have shortlisted writers from across the continent, finding stories that are compelling, well-crafted and thought-provoking.”

From my perspective, apart from one or two stories, I did not see much in terms of risk-taking and innovation. There were some good attempts but writers need to do more. And then there is the issue of the purpose of the prize, in the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong, the Caine Prize has done all the right things in the pursuit of excellence in writing among writers of African descent. Over the years, a robust conversation has ensued as to the purpose and trajectory of the prize. Lizzy Attree, director of the Caine Prize spoke to some of these concerns in this interview with Nick Mulgrew. Last year’s Caine Prize winner, Namwali Serpell, caused a stir when she gave some candid feedback to the organizers of the prize and split her winnings with her fellow contestants. Identity has been an issue; who should vie for these prizes? An unintended consequence of the competition for the Caine Prize in this question: Where is the equity in seeming to pit Diaspora writing against indigenous African writing (by those based at home)? What should folks be writing about? Who should be the audience? Is it appropriate to allow previous winners to continue to vie for the prize? So many questions.

The Caine Prize is in search of a fresh purpose; today’s Africa is not really the postcolonial Africa of old, and all prizes targeted at African writing should reflect the new realities of writing and Africa, especially in the age of the Internet and social media. In the initial years of the prize, one could honestly say that the Caine Prize helped in identifying new talent; indeed many of them went on to become internationally renowned stars. That is changing, and I don’t think it is a good thing. A few hopefuls are repeat returnees to the shortlist (Elnathan John being the most famous) and this year, Tope Folarin became the second prior winner to be on the shortlist again (Segun Afolabi returned last year). Does Arimah really need the Caine Prize? Some would say she is already a precious commodity anywhere in the world where serious writing is judged. She is already a word goddess, what is the point of holding up to the light people who are already blinding the world with the brilliant lights of their literary stardom?

Those who criticize the Caine Prize raise excellent points, but I concede that to the extent that it is directed at the Prize, the criticisms give the impression of entitlement and privilege. Today’s writers should bear most of the blame. The reader seeks genuine innovation in the writing; bold and energetic pieces that keep folks glued to the reading monitor. This is the 21st century. In all seriousness, I pray daily that the equivalent of iTunes comes to rescue the vast majority of African writers from the tyranny of orthodoxy. They seem to spend the best part of their productive lives hoping to land that book contract or win that prize. The odds are beyond intimidating. Which is sad. And frustrating. The best writing of this generation of writers is on the Internet and on social media. And it is really good stuff. Sadly, but understandably most African writers have no choice but to submit themselves to the tyranny of the lottery that passes for traditional publishing.

 Again, let me be honest, there are good pieces on the shortlist (Arimah, Folarin, Lidudumalingani were my best reads) but, beyond those pieces, even with them, I’d rather be on the web reading. Let me repeat: Traditional, analog writing is losing readership and influence. Writing (especially in Africa) is becoming a dying middle class pastime. Why? I see innovation on the web, I see precious little of that elsewhere. Meanwhile, really brilliant writing is being read for free by gleeful readers. Writers should be paid for their innovation and industry on social media. There is hope. Soon, an app will come that will lock down all these offerings and allow readers access to them – for a modest fee. I am having way too much fun. For free. That is not the fault of the Caine Prize. It is what it is.

Finally, and this is important, we must reflect on why the Internet and social media have introduced true, indigenous African English to millions of African readers, and why as a result traditional writing is suffering from benign neglect. I previously wrote about this in this essay, Of African literature and the language and the politics of the stories and I said this:

The West deserves credit for almost single-handedly sustaining African literature with funding and an eager paying readership. However, it has come at a cost on at least one important level; many African writers eager to be published and salivating at prestigious literary platforms have largely allowed the West to distort the literary language in their books. It is almost understandable, these writers are not negotiating from a position of strength, so they watch helplessly as words and terms that make sense in African settings are jury-rigged for Western tastes by Western editors whose awesome editorial skills are hugely compromised by their cultural cluelessness. As an aside, I really believe now that Western editors need to collaborate with the few African editors out there as they prepare African literature for the print shop. The Western reader enjoys the new language of discourse but it is painful to read as an African. So much in contemporary fiction in the books published in the West has been distorted for the simple reason that there is a buying audience that needs to understand these things. It is an economic decision but the implications for Africa and the trajectory of her stories are enormous and mostly tragic.

In these works of fiction, we see the unintended consequence of Western patronage of African writing – a crippling loss of language. And a muffling of powerful voices drowned in the alien applause of an adoring Western audience. It is not all bad, there is some hope; the advent of a robust literary culture on the Internet and on social media has amplified this issue; the democratization of story-telling in the digital space has allowed an emerging generation of writers to just be themselves – to simply write in their own “African English” language. Sadly, to the extent that African literature is judged almost exclusively by books published in the West, it is appropriate to address the distortion in language – and trajectory of the narrative, because the gatekeepers of African literature continue to ignore the fact that the vast majority of African writing today is on the Internet.

I rest my case. Now, let me go back to typing “LOL” on salacious, delightfully inane crap on Facebook. LOL!

On Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

There are many reasons to read Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. It is a thoughtful, gentle, dignified and deeply insightful work with pretty, no, elegant prose thrown in for good measure. The beauty and depth of the prose alone are enough motivation to read this book. This is not your traditional fare from the dusty shelves of orthodox African literature, this is good stuff, recommended reading, not only for individual readers, but for classrooms where these kinds of things are taught. This is how to write. Yes, the first thing the reader notices about the book is its quality. There is quality everywhere you look; in the production, in the prose, and in the depth of the content. All of this is wrapped in sublime elegance. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun hearkens to a time when African writers were not so consumed by superciliousness, a time when the dialogue was respectful and deeply insightful, a time when African characters were not Stepin Fetchit stick figures mumbling in the dark, caricatures hastily erected by African writers for the poverty porn single story that sells in the West. Indeed the book says we are the sum of our experiences, life is complicated and identity is what you make of it. This reader was so taken by this slim volume (a little under 120 pages of dreamy pleasure) he read it twice. It is a slim volume but that is deceptive; there are so many layers to the story. Manyika is expertly coy and cunning in rousing the readers’ curiosity. Words expertly placed at literary attention make you reach for Google – and revel in enchanting worlds within worlds.

Manyika’s approach to writing this novella is unique and innovative. It is a narrative in the first person built around Dr. Morayo Da Silva, the main protagonist. The world is not what it seems, certainly not according to Dr. Morayo Da Silva. She is a retired professor of literature living a charming existence in beautiful San Francisco. At 75, retired and divorced, she is enjoying the winter of her life. The aging process with its associated medical, social and spiritual challenges inspires Da Silva to reflect on her life’s journey so far. The story is told with the aid of several other characters who as they weave in and out of her life help the reader through an engaging thread of conversations around several themes. This slim volume is is what Chinua Achebe would have called dry-meat-that-fills-the-mouth. Manyika introduces you to new knowledge, slyly, ever so slyly, she drops hints and you go looking for them, lovingly, many times using the works of writers, like the “love crumbs” in e.e. cummings’ erotic poem, i like my body when it is with your.

 MuleLike a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is a marked improvement over Manyika’s first novel In Dependence. Where In Dependence seems tentative and unsure of itself, this novella is a bundle of quiet self-assured confidence and eclecticism. Take the title, it is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s oddly eclectic and brilliant poem, Donkey On which, like the novella, ends on a hopeful, joyfully defiant note, giving a sweet middle finger to what passes for living. The book is about relationships and connections to hearts and spaces spanning decades and bleeding into the 21st century, with its promises and challenges. Globalization is not a cliché here, the call centers of Mumbai are a reality and a looming menace. In between the spaces of time, there are all these anxieties that the reader can relate to; sexuality, ethnic cleansing, feminism, and power struggles against patriarchy and class. The themes seem familiar but they come across as fresh. This is not the effete and tired faux narrative of the allegedly, dispossessed, Africa Rising, that reverse pity party of the African middle class taking selfies in front of mimic cafes and fast food restaurants in Lekki and Abuja. Kudos to Manyika; it takes quiet brilliance to start a conversation – for example, without once mentioning the word feminism and Manyika pulls it off mostly. In this book, the reader listens to the voice of a mature sage, and the mind is soaked in the rich perks of age. It bears repeating: Manyika’s novella is gentle and respectful, it is not the caricature that passes for life in many works of African literature. It tackles the same subjects but one gets the sense that one is reading a complex narrative, not just a memoir wrapped in the pretend toga of fiction. The reader is immersed in a good conversation about identity and it is impossible not to think of some of the works of Taiye Selasi, Teju Cole, and to a lesser degree Chris Abani (in The Virgin of Flames), without the in-your face, edgy, and, sometimes contrived, deep drilling of subject matter. Like the works of these authors, it is brilliant still. Afropolitanism is not a word in the book, but it shines through and you want to have that conversation, instead of a yelling match. It’s all about identity: Dr. Da Silva is a Nigerian, but is she? Why? In the 21st century, she is the sum of all the places she’s been.

 What is this book about? It is complicated: The book’s protagonist, seems to suffer from age-related memory loss, she is possibly a hoarder who hides money in strange places in her apartment. She does yoga and poses in tadasana, and is passionate about hot rods and pretty shoes. She is into Scuba diving, swimming, and tattoos. A  near idyllic existence is broken literally by a fall. And things fall apart. But then she rebounds. She is an enigma, full of paradoxes, sophisticated but not too sophisticated to fall prey to Nigerian scam artists. Through her ordeal we engage love, betrayal, longing, heartbreak, exile and everything in between those anxieties. We read a lot through this eclectic woman; there is the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and we learn about writers like Nadine Gordimer José Saramago, Derek Walcott, Jean Rhys. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Earnest Gaines as well as C.L.R. James. The book invites you to read it carefully, there are intriguing riddles in many sentences, one learns a lot.What the protagonist remembers about Nigeria are not always pleasant but they are the reality. The reader learns about Boko Haram and sectarian violence at a time when the country is helpless at violence in Agatu and Enugu, fuming at the effete insolence and silence of those sworn to protect the people. There is a sad commentary on Nigerian societies’ attitude toward mental illness:

 As a child I only remember one mad person – man or woman, I forget. Was it a bare-breasted woman who removed her wrappa to reveal a torn and dirty petticoat? Did she shriek and scratch her head? Or does this memory come from the book of my imagination? Or was it a man with thick, knotty, lice-infested hair? He was the only bearded man I saw in those days. I never dared to look too closely for fear that his curses might land on me. All the children knew that somewhere between this madman’s legs hung a large penis. Swinging. Menacingly. (P 45-46)

 That penis. And Abulu the iconic mad man in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen comes to the mind, nothing changes:

 He was robed from head to foot in filth. As he rose spryly to stand, some of the filth rose with him, while some was left in patches on the ground. He had a fresh scar on his face just below his chin, and his back was caked with a dripping mess from some dead mango in a state of putrefaction. His lips were dried and cracked. His hair was unkempt; it stretched like tendrils, giving him the appearance of a Rastafarian. His teeth, most of which were blackened as if singed, reminded me of fire-blowing gypsies and circus players who blew fire from their mouths and probably, I thought, burned their teeth. The man lay bare before our eyes, stark naked except for a shred of rag which hung loosely from his shoulder down to his waist; his pubic region was covered with a dense foliage of hair in the midst of which his veiny penis hung limply like trouser rope. His legs were bursting with taut varicose veins.

Obioma, Chigozie (2015-04-14). The Fishermen: A Novel (pp. 80-81). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

 Nothing changes, but change is all around Dr. Da Silva’s world. It is the 21st century. Da Silva keeps a healthy distance from the communication tool du jour – social media, the internet, texting, etc. And she asks wistfully:

Whatever happened to all those friends who used to send letters and postcards? Now people just zap off emails or no notes at all. And then, of course, so many friends have died. (p 4)

The dysfunctions of class rear their head; we see the upper middle class thumbing their noses at the less privileged who are privileged to be their house help using language the African middle class inherited from the colonial masters, treating the house help as subhuman beings. One could get a doctoral dissertation from studying this aspect of Nigerian culture.

 It is not a perfect book. It is well-edited, however in Chapter 2, the narrator is in the second person, but then Mrs. Da Silva, the main protagonist shows up – in the first person. Jarring. What makes the book unusual also makes it weak on the surface. You won’t find a plot, just like life. Instead it is written and presented like a thick juicy center cut of a larger work that will appear in the future. Manyika invested a lot of quality time in the development of a few characters; the rest seem to suffer from her inattention. The result is some characters that seemed inchoate, loitering around and then disappearing abruptly like puzzling question marks. The central character suffers from a certain narcissism and some key subjects like bigotry are only scantily sketched. But then, this is America, who needs the constant reminder of Babylon’s madness? Manyika could have deleted a couple of chapters and the novella would have been better for it. But then you read elegant to-die for prose like this and you forgive the book’s flaws: “… and pats of butter so cold they sit, like hard-boiled sweets, refusing to melt on the hill of pancakes.” (p 45)

 Interestingly, Paul Auster’s memoir, Winter Journal mentioned in the book and seems to have inspired Manyika’s novella, because the themes of both books are parallel. The reviews of Winter Journal are scathing. J. Robert Lennon writing in the Guardian says this:

The new book is a rambling, informal collection of memories, musings, and minutiae, presented in the second person and loosely connected by the themes of ageing and the body. It strives to give the impression that is was written extemporaneously, for the author’s own pleasure, and never intended to be published. In fact, it feels posthumous, as though discovered among Auster’s papers after his death and rushed to publication to coincide with some anniversary or memorial.

 Not to be outdone, Meghan O’Rourke of the New York Times piles on rather cruelly:

 Written in the second person (as if Auster were trying to separate, once and for all, the writing self from the body whose life it is describing), “Winter Journal” is a fragmentary and circuitous essay about aging that feels, a little too often, more sketched out than digested. It contains an examination of the body and its frailty and desires; a catalog of the author’s many residences in Paris and in Brooklyn; a reflection on the end of his first marriage; and an elegy for his mother, who died in 2002… “Winter Journal” is not all that philosophical, and its meditative sections have a turgid quality, like a sauce that’s overthickened.”

 There are some who would quibble similarly with portions of Manyika’s book, especially if they measure it against orthodoxy.  This reader enjoyed the book and appreciates the fact that Manyika dared to be different and did not strive to check the boxes of orthodoxy in order to be accepted, especially in the West. Which brings me finally to Manyika’s decision to use an African publisher, rather than to publish it in the West, where her contemporaries take serious pieces to. She starts out the conversation in the UK Guardian:

 “Some people are sceptical about my decision to work with an African publisher, especially given the fact that I live in America and have access to American and European agents. They ask: does my decision make economic sense? Will an African publisher do as well as a western publisher? Behind these polite enquiries, the real question that I feel is being asked is whether an African publisher can be as good as a European or an American. The assumption is that the west does things better than Africa.

My answer is: of course, they can be just as good or just as bad. They can be even better or even worse.”

manyikaManyika’s decision is a brave gamble; the surest way to attain international stature and prestige is to be published in the West. Here is a good piece by Catherine Byaruhanga that explains why in much of Black Africa book reading is an upper middle class pastime. The cost of books has priced most out of a habit that should be a civil right. Many African readers are self-medicating on free fare from the Internet. This is a small but necessary step; if all Africans started subjecting themselves to the compromised institutions of Black Africa they would be more motivated to fight for structural change. In the age of the Internet, Africa has to look at holistic and comprehensive ways to provide a robust analog and digital infrastructure that supports publishing and reading. Kudos to Sarah Ladipo Manyika for walking the tough talk. This reader has grown to admire and respect Cassava Republic, Manyika’s publisher. Over the years, they have become more competitive and showcased works that can compete anywhere in the world. It is good that writers like Manyika are patronizing indigenous publishers, brave souls, but I encourage everyone to look for good publishers anywhere they can find them; life is too short to be that patriotic. In any case, it is the only way we can foster competition. As far as I am concerned many of these “publishing houses” are giant stapling guns. They should just go away.  In the meantime, read this book and marvel at the brilliant mind of she who knows a lot and shows it off sassily as she tools around the catacombs of San Francisco in a 993. A 993? Google it, that’s what your smartphone is for, LOL.

Petina Gappah: Unreliable witnesses and the burden of memory

The biggest surprise about prison is the laughter.
– Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory

Interesting and ambitious: Those two words best describe The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah’s new work of fiction, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is an interesting book, burdened with many ambitious experiments. This fascinating novel follows many long years after Gappah’s highly successful collection of short stories, Elegy for Easterly. Years from now, scholars will debate whether Gappah’s transition from short story writing to this full-length fiction novel was successful. At the very least, this was a listless production for the most part, lacking the passion and joy of Elegy for Easterly. There are many brilliant parts, which make the book recommended reading, but the parts do not jell, largely thanks to an improbable plot with even more improbable twists and turns that gleefully compromised and undermined the book.

The story is narrated in the first person by Mnemosyne or Memory, the main protagonist, an albino born some years before Zimbabwe’s independence (in what was then Rhodesia) to loving parents (well, the mother, not so loving). Memory is inexplicably sold, at age nine, to a white man, Lloyd Hendricks and moves from the poor Mufakose Township to live with him in the wealthy and spacious upper class estates of Umwinsidale. This dislocation from childhood to adulthood sets up class clashes on several levels and she finally ends up on death row accused of murder. It is an improbable plot made even more farcical by twists and turns many of them seemingly designed to keep the story going. The story goes on and on and fills a book, broken up into three parts. The book should have stopped at the first part. One gets the sense that Gappah spent many harried hours with her editor, haggling and fighting over how to get all of this into a book, as if by hook or by crook, a book contract had to be fulfilled. Well, they did get their book.

gappahbookDo not get me wrong: There is plenty to like about the book and there are many excellent reasons why you should read this book despite its flaws. Gappah writes some of the most beautiful prose that any reader will ever come across, turns of phrases sneaking up on you and delighting the senses. A disciplined writer, she spends time with every sentence, it is difficult to fault anything she writes (there were a few editorial issues but my copy was an advance review copy). Many aspects of the book benefited from exquisite research; when the book was good, it was like watching history come alive in black and white (Rhodesia) and in full color (Zimbabwe). Reading many sections of the book felt like flipping through the pages of a photo album lovingly put together by a gifted artist who truly cares about her subjects:

My mother wears a white dress with big red poppies all over it. Around her waist is a cloth belt in the same material, and on her head a red hat with a white plastic flower on it. Her shoes and bag are white. My father is in a safari suit whose colour I can no longer remember. Or perhaps it wasn’t a safari suit at all that he wore, and I have only put him in one because it is what all the men wore in those days. His hair shines with Brylcreem. (p 1)

The Book of Memory is a treatise about exile; prison, and the sale of a child and the resulting dislocation as metaphors for exile and longing. It is about the pain of stigma seen through prison and albinism. There is homophobia, mental illness, and marital violence – by a woman directed at the man and the children. Zimbabwe comes alive, Gappah knows her ancestral land. The book fills the soul with tender memories of the strong and sometimes dysfunctional bonds of the clan and community, of a dad, a gentle soul who upends the chic stereotype about African men as bumbling, drunken misogynists, a dad who dotes on his wife and kids, a dad who works from home, to take care of his kids and wife and who endures marital abuse with grace and calm. This is the work of a well-read, well-traveled and eclectic mind. Intimidating is the breadth and depth of her imagination. You can taste the townships in song and dance and want to eat at a certain restaurant called Zupco:

You will discover as you walk around the city that it was planned to keep the direct heat of the sun away from the faces of white people. In the mornings, they left the northern suburbs to go into town to work, and the sun was behind them, and in the evenings, when they went back home, the sun was behind them still. The streets of the northern suburbs are lined with avenues of jacarandas and flamboyant that give cooling shade. But in the townships, the sun is always in the faces of the people. And there are no tree-lined avenues, no cool grass beneath the feet, only the hard heat of the dusty streets. (p 38)

In many instances in the book, Gappah displays an amazing dexterity with words; she can arrange simple words in sentences that make you really think about the way things are. She offers the best analysis of the African condition that I have ever read and puts to shame those who hurl the word “poverty” at Africans:

We were poor without knowing it. There was nothing ennobling or romantic or life-affirming about our poverty. It just was. And you could say that we did not know just how poor we were because everyone else around us was the same. We accepted the simple order of our lives in the ignorance that other, richer lives were possible. (P 39-40)

I can see this book in the hands of a gifted scriptwriter and superb editor becoming a stirring movie about Zimbabwe’s numerous triumphs and challenges. Sadly, that would require a lot of work pruning the filler weeds from this inchoate production but it can be done.

There is the trademark superciliousness of the African writer, exaggerated by the fact that the narration is in the first person, lending the protagonist a superior all-knowing haughty air. The superciliousness is aimed squarely and gleefully at the white settlers whose ways are caricatured mercilessly as leading soulless lives but it is also turned inwards at the narcissism and self-serving agenda of African intellectuals and artists:

His career has risen with our country’s collapse. His paintings are different from the realist paintings that he said he wanted to paint. It is all tortured faces and screaming mouths now, slashed genitals and dismembered breasts, ‘Evocative images of his tortured homeland,’ as the reviewers have you believe.

His painting speaks truths that the government wants to hide, it is said. He is the artist exiled from his homeland because his work shows a reality before which the government flinches.

None of it is true, but who cares for truth when there is a troubled homeland and tortured artists to flee from it? The more prosaic truth is that he did not flee, but rather left on the arm of his German girlfriend, on a ticket bought with Deutschmarks, and that, having gone to Germany, he got himself a nice new passport before he traded her in for someone richer. (p 178)

The Book of Memory features a brief but brilliant take-down of the shakedown that passes for many NGOs in much of Africa and Haiti. There is also an incursion into Zimbabwe spirituality juxtaposed with Western spirituality. The subject of albinism got a good treatment here, it is not overblown, over-the-top, but respectful. In treating Memory as a human being dealing with biological issues due to her albinism as well as societal prejudices, Gappah humanizes albinism and effectively educates the reader about the subject. This book houses robust discourses on race, misogyny, and class (in this regard, juxtaposing Memory’s life with her parents with life with her white owner was masterful). As a delightful side benefit, many readers will be surprised by Africa’s love affair with the radio and country music:

My mother… liked the more mournful music of Jim Reeves and Dolly Parton and Porter Wagner and Kenny Rogers, particularly the songs that were also stories.” (p 93)

It bears repeating: The Book of Memory is not a perfect book. The book’s chapters sometimes seemed like passive-aggressive members of a dysfunctional family; as if Gappah wrote the chapters independently of each other, like failed short stories. A character or two appear out of the blue as it they’d been previously introduced in the book, the forensics research was poorly done and the construction of the death scene stretched credulity. Readers who remember the playfulness and unrestrained defiant abandon of Gappah’s Elegy for Easterly will be quite disappointed by the tentativeness of The Book of Memory. The humor is there no doubt:

She is in prison for biting the penis off a man who refused to pay her after sex at a nightclub. ‘Prostitute Bites Man’s Privates’ is a frequent enough headline in the papers to make it a common-place occurrence, but Jimmy’s attack was so ferocious that her victim fainted from blood loss. When he recovered, it was to find that Jimmy had fled to the women’s toilets, where she spat out an essential part of him into Harare’s sewers. (p 22)

Sadly, the humor is shy, unsure of itself, never letting go of the hem of self-doubt. At its best, the reader’s face cracks into a smile, and stops. There is little room for mirth, this is a restrained book, too restrained. It is as if the Petina Gappah we know was held hostage by an army of humorless editors:

The bulk of this book happens inside a prison, thankfully, it almost liberates the book. Gappah knows the prison culture and it shows. This is an exquisitely researched book about life inside a female prison. The scenes are convincing, the characters well developed and the riotous sorority of prisoners and jailers, soul stirring. Whenever the book strayed out of prison I would pine for the cells where brave but flawed women spoke defiantly of the injustices that landed them in the unjust arms of a semi-blind and prejudiced judicial system.

gappah2pic

The Book of Memory continues a conversation about (the English) language and the stories of Africa, what gets lost and what gets mangled in the translation. It is a book written with immense pride, there is little attempt to explain indigenous Shona terms. Gappah takes the conversation one step further by simply writing entire songs and sentences in Shona with absolutely no explanation. This would not be a problem if one could easily google them and get translations. Google does explain terms like Voetkek to the world, and Zimbabwe’s history becomes accessible. One learns from instance that there was a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe’s prisons in 2008 thanks to Gappah’s delightful penchant for weaving history into the folds of fiction. The reader however soon tires and curiosity grows into frustration as Shona songs and terms are too obscure for Google to translate or explain. In the confrontation between Shona and the English language, Shona loses.

The Book of Memory is like an airplane, roused, it rumbles, grumbles and growls, then starts a slow ride that rises into a flight – and then comes down crashing in a slow burn. Out of the smoldering rubble, the reader sees islands of spectacular brilliance connected by long stretches of drudgery and monotony. Memory, the protagonist reminds the reader of Ikemefuna, that tragic figure in Chinua Achebe’s epic Things Fall Apart: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death,” the elder Ezeudu warned Okonkwo. This reader felt like advising Gappah, “That girl loves her family. Do not sell her off, it makes no sense, it will kill your novel.”

 

Elnathan’s song: Born into a war on a boiling Tuesday

“Let your women study,’ Sheikh said, ‘and let them vote. Let them learn how to read. The wives of Christians read and write and our wives cannot even read the Quran. There is no sin if a man accompanies his wives to go and queue up to register or to vote.”

– Born on a Tuesday, Elnathan John p116

The writer Elnathan John is something of a celebrity renegade in the African literary scene. He rules the waves on social media, this eccentric and eclectic Twitter Overlord who sits perched on an imaginary throne, dispensing carefully crafted snarky but profound tweets that throb and seethe with controlled rage and truth, tweets that often develop lives of their own in the re-tweeting and re-telling, as they utilize the magic of the multiplier effect to replicate and go viral in infinite directions. Elnathan could probably make a nice living by allowing ads on his Twitter site; he has the kinds of followers that make him an opinion – and possibly brand leader.

Elnathan is probably not well known in Western literary circles where the keepers of the gates of African literature live, but it has not been without trying. He has been shortlisted twice for the prestigious Caine Prize; in 2013 for his short story Bayan Layi, and in 2015 for Flying. He is yet to win the prize. I almost expect him to be back on the shortlist in 2016, he is quietly relentless. Elnathan can also be quite controversial, he seems to court and relish the drama of being the center of literary and social media attention. His spat with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well chronicled here. Here is a television interview of Elnathan that gives further insights into the numerous demons that drive his creativity.

elnathanprofileSo, Elnathan has a new book out, Born on a Tuesday, published by Cassava Republic Publishing Press. It is just the case that even as the world is changing few writers feel accomplished without writing a book. This is interesting because it is not as if Elnathan needs a book to establish his cred as a writer. He is easily one of the most important writers to come out of Africa in the 21st century and the world has the gift of the Internet to hold responsible for his restless presence in readers’ daily lives. It is a sign of the changing times that he is his own publisher, on social media and on his blog, spewing forth thought provoking material laden with sardonic humor without the permission of avuncular gatekeepers.

It is the truth: Few African writers feel accomplished without being published by a publisher in the West. There they have all the tools that a writer needs and they also have access to a willing paying audience. There seems to be a movement to change that, thanks to a new crop of writers like Elnathan (most of them living inside Africa) willing to work with publishers on their own terms. Rather than endure the clinical editing of Western publishers, they are turning to African publishers. This is a leap of faith and a gamble, for many African publishers are pretend publishing outfits, giant stapling guns with a lot of heart but little to offer writers. However, having just read Saah Millimono’s Love Interrupted published by Kenya-based Kwani Trust and now Elnathan’s Born on a Tuesday, published by Cassava Republic, it is my fervent wish that I am not forced to eat my words. Like Love Interrupted, I was impressed by the quality of print and editing of Born on a Tuesday. I looked hard but I could not find a single typo or sentence that was out of place in that book. This book can compete with any book published outside Africa. The book said to me, “My writer and publisher are serious people.” That is so refreshing and I sincerely hope that this is an upward trend for African publishing. Kudos to the people behind Cassava Republic.

Yes, I read Born on a Tuesday. And I liked it. I was taken by this little book that took me places in Nigeria and in the heart that I did not know existed. There should be a special place in hell for those who think Africa is one large country. This book confronts prejudices and ignorance about a large swath of Nigeria and then suddenly the reader understands why Elnathan would look the world in the eye and insist on writing what he refers to on social media as his own reality. This time I agree with Elnathan, Born on a Tuesday is not poverty porn, but a serious exploration and analysis of a very important part of Nigeria. In the process, Elnathan makes a powerful case: His life’s journeys are far removed from those of the average Southern reader and writer. In that respect, alone, this is an incredibly important book, one that needed to be written despite the risk that it would be put under the category of poverty porn. There is another sense in which Born on a Tuesday is an important book; it joins a robust body of literary works that are now shaping an intellectual dichotomy between Diaspora writing and writing from within the continent. That alone is enough to keep several PhD candidates busy.

Born on a tuesdayIn Born on a Tuesday Elnathan wraps several issues around a simple plot: The protagonist, a boy Ahmad Dantala leaves home to attend a Muslim school far away from his parents. Through this simple act of dislocation, the reader is taken through a bloody roller-coaster of emotions and violence in Northern Nigeria as life becomes a theater of war for this boy and he is forced to live in strange places and be mentored by even stranger people.

It is easy to fall in love with Dantala, this inquisitive kid, this autodidact who knows Hausa and Arabic and in between the spaces of his anxieties studies English with great success. Spoiler alert: This is a very graphic novel and if you don’t have the stomach for blood and other bodily fluids, this book is not for you. It is a book of unspeakable sadness. Grief is a leaden blanket that almost overcomes. Fleeing darkness, Dantala moves from place to place mentor to mentor and repeatedly suffers heartbreak of the bone crushing kind. He is almost clinical and detached in narrating the child abuse that is his daily lot. He says matter-of-factly in that voice that haunts and hurts the soul, “I have never memorized anything without a whip in front of me.” Your heart goes out to the voice, the narrator.

Dantala’s voice is the terrified voice of a boy who has seen too much. Somebody’s hand is chopped off for stealing meat, women are beaten savagely by cruel men for the sin of being married to them and children grow up to learn that cruelty is normal. The book reads like a movie from hell. I can see this as a movie actually. Yes, there is unspeakable cruelty in the form of torture; human beings are slaughtered like mere goats. At some point, the violence becomes monotonous and meaningless and the reader asks, “What is the purpose of all this?”

There is purpose and beauty in this book. It does help that the book is immensely readable with beautiful unpretentious prose that keeps you wondering what will happen next. Born on a Tuesday is pretty prose-poetry rolling past the eyes, lovely words conjured by an artist filled with a quiet self-confidence. There is nothing to prove here, Elnathan can write. Born on a Tuesday is a well-paced book, sometimes, the reader’s heart races as the book teases the senses. In a sense the book is almost prophetic. Nigeria seethes, held hostage by ignorance and arrogance, people will not be bothered about history because history is no longer being taught in Nigeria’s classrooms. Boko Haram is on a rampage, the politicians of old are here draped in new agbada and ancient ideas and Biafra is back into our consciousness roaring on the dysfunctional backs of philistines with a mission.

Is that not how they told us that, during the Civil War, the same man who was pushing the Nyamirai to attack Nigeria jumped on a plane and ran away when he saw that his people were defeated? People never learn. p228

There is anger in the land because, as the book demonstrates, the people do not remember. Actually you don’t remember what you don’t know. This book teaches you about these things, so you will never forget. This book should be taught in the classrooms, it packs so much in, it would make a great text for instruction in literature, politics and (the ethics) of organized religion. This is a book about war and living and loving. It is deceptive in how it reads like a simple story in the beginning but soon gets serious and almost tedious towards the end. It is stunning how much Elnathan packs into this one story. I would like to see this book paired with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s epic, Half of a Yellow Sun as instructional text in graduate studies. I would take that course in a heartbeat.

There is compassion and the humanity shines through. Elnathan displays a good grasp of Islam and its attendant culture and educates the reader with great discipline and patience. The reader learns many things; do you know kosai is akara? To my great delight, Elnathan did not bother giving helpful explanations and footnotes – I had to google unfamiliar Nigerian terms like Dambe and tozali. And I found out that koko is also akamu.

Born on a Tuesday makes the case that in Nigeria, many dysfunctions have rushed into the huge vacuum left by a rank failure of leadership. Citizens, rich and poor are thus terrorized as they try to survive in a state in which structures and institutions have been compromised by graft and incompetence. There is politics featuring violent political rivalry. Between the Small Party and the Big Party. There is anti-Semitism, the alert reader learns about sects, divisions and anxieties within the Muslim community in Nigeria. The reader learns about the evil of scammer-NGOs fleecing donors. Google Dan daudu. And there is bigotry:

A Yoruba man is a Yoruba man. No matter how Muslim they become. They stab you in the back. That is how they are. Hypocrites.  p121

Elnathan displays courage in his quiet but in your face, matter-of-fact narration of things many would rather not talk about. It is a time of discovery among boys and girls struggling through adolescence and taboo issues like masturbation and homosexuality; two boys engage in gay sex and the resulting guilt and confusion feels like mourning:

Malam Junaidu said it was a sin fasting could not cleanse. I had heard of men being together, read many hadiths about sodomy, but I had never seen it with my own eyes. I wondered what they did before I came and how they did it. When I imagined how painful it was sometimes to shit in the toilet, especially when I ate a lot of bread, I wondered if Bilal didn’t feel pain allowing Abdulkareem’s penis inside him. I thought of the hadith that said that the earth trembles whenever there is an act of sodomy and wondered how many times they had done it and if I ever felt the earth tremble. It made me feel nauseated when I thought of it—Abdulkareem touching Bilal, Bilal bending over—how they could prefer themselves to girls?

Born on a Tuesday is quietly funny, brimming with sardonic humor. My favorite chapter is the one named My Words, in the protagonist’s hand writing. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It is perhaps the most creative thing I have seen from a writer in a long time. It is so cute and adorable you fall in love with the protagonist, Dantala. It is as if he is walking around in a drugged, poetic daze amused, if not bemused by an ever-changing dispensation that stays new and unknowable:

I walk past the ward where they say the oldest patient in the hospital is. Everyone says he has been here for many years. Sometimes he goes unconscious for months and just when they think he might not make it, he wakes up. Only Allah knows what type of sickness that is that makes a man go to sleep for months. p121

Sometimes I wish I knew why Allah does His things. Why He lets good people get shot and bad people get all the glory; why He lets bad people have such gifts like the power to move crowds and convince people and make grown men cry. It is His earth. p128

I am happy that I know the difference of piece of paper and sheet of paper. It use to worry me. But now I know piece of paper is paper that is not complete that somebody tear to write something and sheet of paper is a full paper that is complete. p134

In Dantala’s world, we find pockets of wealth lying side by side with a culture of poverty and misery marinated in a sea of organized religion. It is a society that is deeply dysfunctional and violent even as its leaders preach peace. Dantala finds comfort in violence – and his religious fate. As if they are both linked. His religion takes him to a peaceful place but the road is strewn with violence. He is awed by raw wealth, power and education. It’s all about power:

The deputy governor has so many people around him. He has someone holding his bag, someone pulling out a chair for him, someone holding his phones and someone writing when he speaks. I wonder why one man needs so many people as if he were a cripple. Sheikh does not even let me carry his bag. p140

Born on a Tuesday opens Northern Nigeria to the world in a way that Cyprian Ekwensi’s Burning Grass did decades ago, albeit more intensely and with an edgy attitude. Also, as I reflected on the fate of the young Dantala and Aisha, his love interest in a time of war, I remembered Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child, and the love of children in a time of Mau Mau and marauding colonialists.

Dantala is Elnathan’s Obierika of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the sensitive soul who thinks about these things. He is socially awkward but he asks interesting questions: “A bra is an interesting piece of clothing. I wonder who came up with the complicated idea.” And like Obierika he thinks about a lot of things and he struggles to understand the world or the war he was born into:

Malam Abdul-Nur opens with a long Arabic quotation from a book by Bakr ibn Abdullah Abu Zayd. He then translates it into Hausa and explains how Islamic societies were self-sufficient and pious and progressive. The Europeans, he explains, needing to conquer Muslim people, sought to start by conquering their culture through worthless and sinful education. He says that if the Europeans had come with guns and ships, it might have been easy to fend them off. But they came with liberal ideas and education to slowly eat at the root of Islamic civilisation and control. He calls the modern Islamic universities ‘so-called Islamic universities’ because they have adopted Western education. Then he takes a more direct hit at Sheikh by saying that the basis of the Nigerian government is kufr because democracy is ‘a disgusting, anti-Islamic, Western invention which seeks to introduce liberal ideas and kill Islamic values. p196

There is one reason you should read this book. Elnathan paid a lot of attention to character design and development and it shows beautifully. You will love the characters in the book, these are not stick figures, these are not caricatures; these are thinking people. Africa has thinking people. They even have books in their homes. Wow, what a concept. African writers would do well to read this book and see what it means to talk about a people without feeding the bigoted jaundiced views of an entire continent. By the way, if you are interested in having a taste of Born on a Tuesday, please read his short story, Bayan Layi, which earned him a place on the Caine Prize shortlist in 2013. It resurfaces as the first chapter of the book.

Finally, Born on a Tuesday is about purpose. What is the purpose of writing? What should writers be writing about in a world filled with anxieties and terror? Is it the writer’s burden to be the moral voice of those without voices? Elnathan has earned my respect and admiration. He and many other writers have stayed firmly rooted in the earth in Africa quietly telling their truths with every canvas available to them. This book screams to be taught in every classroom out there. In Elnathan’s fiction, there is history, that subject deleted from Nigeria’s classrooms. I would love to see this book read to millions of youngsters in the world. It is not just a good book, it is an important book. I love the new literary warriors, most of them writing from within the continent as opposed to Diaspora writers, writing with a new-found confidence, and unapologetically doing their thing. With this book, Elnathan joins that army of writers. In Born on a Tuesday, nothing indigenous like egusi is italicized, not much is needlessly explained. Like A. Igoni Barrett in his book, Blackass, Elnathan says, If you don’t understand it, Google it! I love it!

Essays from exile: The oporoko chronicles

for you Mrs. C!
Princess of  the Earl of Sandwich!
Your eyes are teasing me again…

I am hungry. Very hungry. And hunger drives my brain cells to a certain point of brilliance, that hell-nirvana that my adversaries, and quite a few friends, call stark raving, certified lunacy. And as always happens when hunger places my growling stomach under house arrest, I commence esoteric ruminations, thinking deeply profound thoughts, or as my detractors would say, hallucinating. I am wondering for instance, when will Chinua Achebe, the world’s greatest writer of all times, get the Nobel Prize for discovering the Internet? Achebe lives! Yes, when will that brooding god of the white man’s letters sue the United States Government for stealing his ideas about a world without boundaries? Achebe lives! It is a poorly kept secret that Chinua Achebe discovered the Internet but the white man took credit for it. Achebe lives!

The white man has what we in Africa would call chutzpah if we were Jewish. I can’t believe that the white man is claiming that he discovered the Internet. Hell, any dolt who has read Achebe’s legendary book Things Fall Apart will readily come to one incontrovertible conclusion: The Internet was a deep dark secret in Achebe’s fecund brain way before the CIA became three measly letters in Washington DC ’s bureaucratic alphabet soup. Alphabet soup! Sandwiches! Today is Monday! Yesterday was Sunday and on Friday, my lover cooked me a pot of fresh fish peppersoup and I forgot to eat it on Saturday because I hid it so well on Friday. I hid my lover’s peppersoup from my weekend friends, pretend food critics, interlopers whose job it is to fawn over my lover’s cooking while eating it all!nigerian-soup-ewedu-egusi

I am hungry. Very hungry. Where did I keep my lover’s peppersoup? I must be at that age when I must write down the exact location of all the good stuff that I have stashed away in all my hiding places. I know exactly what I have hidden from my friends, my children and my lover – assorted delicacies lovingly cooked for me by my lover, bars of ice cream, cookies, US dollars… But first I must remember the locations of all my hiding places. I tell you, the aging process is a humbling, if not humiliating experience. In the beginning of the beginning of the twilight of my life’s journey, I am wondering, what goes first after the flight of youth; sex or memory? It is a brilliant question, and I know the answer to the riddle. But first I must go fetch my answer from its hiding place. Along with my lover’s fresh fish peppersoup.

I am hungry. Very hungry. And profound thoughts come rushing at me like large Americans assaulting McDonalds’ at lunch time. I am thinking of lunch. White folks have sandwiches and they have recipes. Everything is calculated. My mother doesn’t do recipes. Never did. But man, she doled out pots of heavenly miracles from the bowels of that “kitchen” behind our compound. What passed for the kitchen of my childhood was severely allergic to things like measuring spoons and recipe books. My mother doesn’t do recipes. Never did. She cooked just like she lived her life; she made things up and it was a glorious mess. That delightfully chaotic tradition of making things up as life demands was passed on to my lover. For which I am immensely grateful. My lover doesn’t do recipes. Never did. Our kitchen in America does allow for fancy notions like measuring spoons, cutting boards and recipes. But my lover regards those notions er kitchen utensils as decorations. Show me a Nigerian woman who cooks egusi soup with a recipe and I’ll show you a white woman who garnishes her ogbono soup with carrots and cucumbers. No, my lover doesn’t do recipes, perish that thought. And like my mother’s cooking, my lover’s cooking reminds me every day that it would be sheer murder for her to divorce me.  If she deserts my sorry ass, who else will cook for me in the grand tradition of our ancestors?  I know this Nigerian dude who was embroiled in a bitter, nasty, divorce proceeding with his wife. He was willing to pay child support, alimony and all other forms of divorce ransom just to be free of his miserable marriage. Under one condition. He requested the court to grant him ogbono soup alimony from his wife. He made a strangely compelling case that his soon to be ex-wife had a moral, if not legal obligation to continue to provide him ogbono soup since he had become addicted to that sauce of gods. The judge granted him ogbono soup support on one condition – he had to provide his own pounded yam. He died a few months later of food poisoning. The ex-wife was never charged with murder – apparently the fool ate all the evidence before he died.

I am hungry. Very hungry. And I am thinking of the sandwich, that veritable substrate of multitaskers. I know now why the white man landed on the moon several moons before my people. It was all thanks to the sandwich. The white man discovered the sandwich. What has the sandwich got to do with the moon? I don’t know, I am hungry and hunger causes me to hallucinate. All I know is this: when the white man wanted to go to the moon, he created the sandwich. The sandwich fosters progress. You see, you can eat a sandwich and do other things at the same time, like drive, think, use the bathroom… Show me any Nigerian who landed on the moon after a meal of pounded yam and ogbono soup and I’ll show you someone suffering from the terminal stages of malaria. I can happily say that the Nigerian will never go to the moon. Because the pounded yam is like the jealous wife that our ancestors nicknamed “The Only One.” After a good meal, Americans like to indulge in a scrumptious dessert, like chocolate cake or ice cream. After a good meal of pounded yam, the only dessert you want between your lips is a toothpick. The pounded yam is delicious history posing as the present tense. The pounded yam was meant for farmers and warriors, not us, sedentary civil servants. We eat like farmers; we have no farms. But I love the pounded yam, nonetheless.

stockfis cod body-500x500It would be nice if our meals came in the form of sandwiches so we can get some serious work done and stuff our faces at the same time. But they do not. Who has ever heard of rice and stew sandwich? What would the bread be made of, scented banana leaves? Who would want to eat such a creation? Jeff, my American friend loves to drive his jalopy, eat a corned beef sandwich, play with his smartphone and talk to me while ogling scantily clad girls preening on the streets. All at the same time. Yet, he has had only four serious car accidents this year. Let me just observe that it would be extremely unwise to do anything else while attacking a mound of pounded yam and ogbono soup. Certainly not while driving. Indeed, the last Nigerian that tried to drive while eating pounded yam and ogbono soup did not live to repeat that foolishness. He died with his car wrapped around an Iroko tree. He died happy though. The dude died with a beautiful grin on his face, with a healthy ball of pounded yam coated in  egusi soup in each fist. Now, my people, that is how to die. After his death, his people went to the dibia, the wise man up the hills. And the dibia said that the fool deserved to die because he allowed his enemies to feed him pounded yam while driving his dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle on Nigeria’s death-traps euphemistically called roads.

I love ogbono soup, especially one stocked with chunks of smoked fish, tripe, ox-tail, cowfoot, snail and goat meat and stockfish. Panla! Oporoko! Stockfish!  Dried cod, aka stockfish comes from Norway and is compelling proof that the Norwegians are light-skinned descendants of our great country Nigeria. Stockfish has a distinct odor that some of its detractors have described with adjectives that are unfortunately unprintable. It is no secret that we Nigerians consume stockfish in great quantities. We normally cook it for a long time to soften it otherwise it would do great damage to your teeth. If you have teeth. I love stockfish, smell and all. It is an acquired taste, I must admit. And the smell, oh, the fragrance lingers on like a bad relationship and it clings to you all the way into corporate board rooms: Hear the white man ask “What is that interesting smell? Is that your cologne?”

I was in secondary school when the Nigerian Civil War ended. That war claimed a million people, thanks to the Western world’s generous insistence on supplying both sides with weapons of mass destruction. After the war, the West, eager to assuage its guilt in supervising a pogrom, embarked on a “rehabilitation” effort, a grand initiative which involved flooding us with bales of stockfish, bags of wheat and tons of powdered milk. I did not understand at the time why I was being “rehabilitated.” My side of Nigeria did not see a whole lot of that unfortunate war, but I was happy to humor white do-gooders by happily dining on tough strips of stockfish dried milk and “wheat” foo-foo. I quickly learnt that I had bad teeth plus I was lactose intolerant. I also found out that I could do a mean 100 yard sprint to the latrine after ingesting powdered milk. Every ten minutes. I should probably sue the white man for feeding me tubs of lactose intolerance. Except that the evidence is long gone down the latrines of my childhood.

As I was saying, it is impossible to do anything else after feasting on a mound of pounded yam. Well, anything else, except sleep. You have no doubt heard the story of the newly-wed Nigerian lady who complained to her mother that she was always physically exhausted because her husband was in the habit of demanding (and apparently getting) sex every night. Her mother assured her that if she fed her husband a mound of pounded yam every evening, the horny goat would go to sleep! It apparently worked because I can report that they are still happily married. Only in Nigeria. American women feign headaches to get out of having sex. Our women drug us to an impotent stupor with great balls of pounded yam!

I don’t take lunch to work. Well I did once. And the experience was a disaster. You see, I don’t care much for the sandwich. The whole concept of stuffing meat between slices of bread, I find quite fascinating. Not so our children. I can honestly say that our children are not Nigerians. I believe that my children were probably switched at birth; they have no genetic affinity for pounded yam. Instead they treat hamburgers and hotdogs with the reverence that I normally reserve for a bowl of piping hot rice and goat meat stew. Now, that is a meal! I wish it would come in a sandwich so I can get some work done in the office during my lunch break. My fellow workers come to work with their lunch boxes. They arrange their lunches in these cute little boxes like intricate art work – there is the sandwich, the potato chips, the carrots and the apple and sometimes the cookie (biscuit!). One day I brought my lunch to work in two Ovaltine tins. Ovaltine tins? Well, you are probably aware that the Nigerian is the world’s greatest recycler. Let me just say this: It is highly recommended that you do not assume that the ice cream container that resides in a Nigerian’s refrigerator houses ice cream. The jar container may have contained ice cream once upon a time but today, the real contents may be egusi, ogbono, peppersoup… I must be really hungry. Sigh!

Well, this one day, I took my lunch to work in two Ovaltine tins. One tin held my pounded yam and the other housed my ogbono soup. Man, my ogbono soup was chock full of strips of goat meat, smoked fish, stock fish, ox tail, cow foot, tripe, and snails the size of an elephant’s ear. Everything was fine in the office until I tried to microwave the ogbono soup. Someone in the office must have had major issues with the fragrance ensuing from my ogbono soup because that evil someone called the 911 emergency line. The ensuing fracas was a great theatrical production. You would have thought that terrorists were attacking America again. Specialized crisis teams swooped down on me and my ogbono soup; we are talking Hazardous Materials (HazMat) teams, fire trucks, ambulances, and grief counselors (some idiot apparently thought someone had died inside our office kitchenette). I would say more about this humiliating experience but my lawyers have asked me to refer all questions to them until the conclusion of a pending lawsuit where I am asking for a few hundred million dollars as compensation for the assault on my dignity. And I want my Ovaltine tin of ogbono soup back from the HazMat lab. Those assholes took my ogbono soup that houses my snails! It took a lot of ingenuity to smuggle those snails past Homeland Security at the airport.

So, acting on the advice of my lawyers, I don’t take lunch to work anymore. I do miss chomping on cow foot, ox tail and stockfish at lunch time. I don’t know what it is about the fragrance of stockfish that drives ordinarily reasonable Americans insane. I used to have an American room-mate, George Wallace, a quiet kid from rural Alabama; a kid used to chomping on chitterlings, the African-American cousin to ngwon-gwon that delectable dish of the gods that materializes from the offal of cows! Well, George Wallace was my room-mate until that fateful day when he walked in on me boiling stockfish. He walked out of my life in disgust, sputtering the sage words: “Damn! That shit stinks!” I love stockfish, but I won’t lie, that shit stinks! I know a highly revered Nigerian professor here in the United States who has banned the cooking of stockfish in his home. Apparently, his neighbors confronted him about a certain smell coming from his kitchen on certain evenings and accused him of trying to bring down the property value of their homes. One day, he overheard one of his neighbors thinking out aloud about calling Immigration on his illegal ass. So he stopped cooking stockfish and switched to eating sandwiches instead. Who wan die?egusi soup2

I am at work. I am hungry. I don’t want a sandwich. I remember; my lover is at home today! Today is her day off! There is a god! Suddenly a force jerks me up, hands me my car keys and my cellphone and shoves me out the door of my office. I am going home to eat! I wave my Blackberry at my colleagues, “I am going home for lunch! I’ll be right back! Call me on my cellphone if you need me! The brunette peers at me from the top of her horn-rimmed glasses like an all-knowing owl and her eyes tell me what she is thinking:

 “What is it with black men and sex? Can’t even wait to get home in the evening! Sheesh! Lawd have mercy! No wonder they never landed on the moon!”

I don’t care! I am going home to eat real food. Real food! Good sex! Who cares? Same difference!

My lover meets me at the door. She doesn’t seem too excited to see me!

  • Wetin you dey do for house? Why you nor call say you dey come house, abi dem don sack you again?
  • I dey hungry!
  • Dem nor get sandwich for una office?
  • I say I dey hungry!
  • Wetin u go chop!
  • Anything! Anything wen nor be sandwich!

I am hunched over heaping helpings of my lover’s cooking: fresh fish peppersoup, jollof rice, garnished with delectable strips of goat meat, tripe, ox tail, stockfish and snails the size of an elephant’s ears. Life is good. For one hour I am living an analog life in delightful defiance of the chaos of a digital world that was forced on us by thinkers like Chinua Achebe, people with over-sized brains. The delicacies of Africa soothe my stomach and dull my senses and I am now thinking rational albeit mundane thoughts. And I am thinking… What is all this about Chinua Achebe and the Internet? Did Philip Emeagwali really claim to be father of the Internet? Hmmmm! Did we pay our mortgage this month? What about last month?  My lover’s eyes hover over me, caring but anxious. She warns me about sauce dripping on to my white shirt. She worries, if I stain my shirt, I would have to change it and what would the amebos at work think – you went home to get “some” at lunch time! Who cares? My stomach just had sex! We are happy! Tell the amebos to go munch on a sandwich!

Epilogue – For Mamaput!

I wake up
deep in the bliss for the ignorant.
I pat my great stomach,
try to still the little lions
roaring away their message.

Lunch time!
Relax lions, I say
Your cage, my belle,
nor be sound proof!

Or do you insist on disgracing me
before these disinfected lords?
Well if you insist,
meet mama put, nomad,
hotel on ten toes,
magician-owner of a zillion hat tricks
that thrill the stomach’s heart.

Help me down, will you? she asks.
I love the smell of rice trapped in scented leaves.
And the bovine and Aquarian secrets
trapped in their own stews
are my delight!

Mama put
I hope all your particulars are correct,
I growl in mock cop style,
the style that warns molue driver
that particulars will never be correct
save that naira note
is completely lost
amidst the said particulars.
she replies in mock danfo driver fashion
resignation and hopelessness
all over her face.
I go try!

OK Mama put, put roun’about!
(that is the cow’s intestines for you)
put towel!
(tripe for you)

Put ponmo!
(that is the hide for you, very delicious!)
Mama put
your kidneys are too costly!
OK put one. One I say!
Abi na you go pay? What of your liver dem?
I hope dem nor rotten today?
Put one!

Cow leg? Cow’s legs, ke! Not today!
Tomorrow maybe. These legs are becoming too costly!
And besides they could be carcinogenic.
You know these cows certainly go places with those legs!

Mama put, how’s The Head of State today?
(that is the fish’s head for you, really delicious I tell you!)
Our Head of State dey, he’s fine, she replies coyly
OK just one!
Now, how much be my bill?
Three thousand Naira! Mamaput! You wan buy house
wit my money! Crook! Dreamer! Elemu!
Here’s your one thousand ojare!
If you don’t like my money give am to polis!

Notes:

The sandwich is a food item typically consisting of two slices of bread between which are laid one or more layers of meat, vegetable, cheese, or other fillings, together with optional or traditionally provided condiments, sauces, and other accompaniments. The sandwich was named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat, although it is unlikely to have been invented by him. It is said that Lord Sandwich was fond of this form of food because it allowed him to continue gambling while eating. The name of the earldom comes from that of the English village of Sandwich in Kent —from the Old English Sandwic, meaning “sand place”.

Source: Wikipedia.org, the free encyclopedia

 

[Guest Blog Post] Mike Ekunno: Foreign Gods, Inc. – Modern story of old conflicts

TITLE: Foreign Gods Inc.
AUTHOR: Okey Ndibe
PUBLISHER: Soho Press Inc.
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2014
PAGES: 332.

Foreign Gods Inc., Okey Ndibe’s second novel had its Nigerian release of sorts in December 2014, when its author had readings in Nigeria. The period coincided with a spike in the book’s ratings as it made many Best Books of 2014 lists. Now is therefore as germane a time as any other time to take a look at what the novel offers and l did that in the Christmas holiday ambience of Eastern Nigeria where much of the story is set.

foreign godsThe novel is about lke Uzondu’s scheme to steal the figurine of Ngene, his village, Utonki’s once powerful war deity and sell to a New York gallery from which the book derives its title. A degree-holder cab driver who had been serially scorned by American employers on account of his “accent”, Ike has fallen on hard times and the exotic heist appears just about perfect for a bail out. What would have acted as a moral fetter to the theft had been removed by the deity’s redundancy since “the pacification of Africa” by the colonialists. Ike arrives home ostensibly to visit with his widowed and long-neglected mother. He steps into the triangular entanglements woven by the clashes of the African traditional religion of his uncle, Osuakwu, the new Pentecostal faith of his mother and sister and the old orthodox faith he left behind. His proseletising nuclear family has made a switch to the venal brand of Pentecostalism which brainwashes lke’s plain mother into enmity with his idol-worshipping uncle and grandmother. The returnee lke brimming with American iconoclasm will have none of the old wife’s tale of witchcraft and is bent on fraternising with his uncle and granny. He visits Osuakwu at the shrine and partakes in the ceaseless flow of drinking and banter all the while eyeing his quarry. The night before his departure, he strikes and steals the sculpture of the deity but an unexpected hurdle awaits back in the US.

Foreign Gods is acknowledged as a heist story. But the heist only provides the narrative canvas against which Ndibe weaves a rich tapestry with spurs to immigrant identity crises, Nigerian corruption, Christian ideological differences with African traditional religion and the mercenary arm of Nigerian Pentecostalism. Like most heist stories, the reader wonders at what point the scheme will come unstuck. This forms the bait under-girding the narrative suspense and sustaining the reader’s interest. Reading Foreign Gods, you wonder whether Ike can pull off the heist successfully or there’d be a snafu. The latter has half a dozen means that could bring it about. Funding the trip is one. The deity fighting off the venal adventure is another. And then there could be other hurdles ranging from the Department of Customs’ sentinel for antiquities to the gallery developing cold feet. With other deities going for six figures at the New York gallery, the expected windfall is sufficient aphrodisiac for lke to brave these real and imagined obstacles. The author is able to bait the reader successfully till the end of the story. This is more than can be said for many Nigerian novelists who write as if they have recused their art from global standards of good story telling. Being suspenseful is not the work’s only plus. It tells a straightforward tale with a dominant protagonist who we follow without the distraction of too many sub plots, flashbacks and flash forwards. The main flashback to Rev. Stanton’s pioneer missionary work in Utonki is masterfully handled and made integral to the narrative mainstream. This contributes to the book’s uncomplicated enjoyment.

Stylistically, Foreign Gods is a reader’s delight once allowance is made for its grandiose diction. The author just manages to skirt the boundaries of bombast with his regular recourse to second degree synonyms. Given Ndibe’s pedigree in creative non-fiction, this is to be expected. It should have fallen to his editors to step down some of the diction and syntax to fiction’s mellow precincts. On pg. 271 we read: “Yet, his uncle was not only much older, he was also a man of meager musculature.” On pg. 295: “A sally of stench hit Ike’s nostrils the moment he opened the door to his apartment. It left a ghoulish impression, reminded him of feculent silt.” But it is not all bombast. Ndibe’s prose sings through the novel. On pg. 15:“Ahead, a long line of cars shat a smashed omelet of red brake lights.” And on pg. 146: “Why had he allowed his mother to drag him out to this shabby, ramshackle establishment and to peddle him to a lineup of women driven to insane distraction by dreams of American matrimony and dollars?”

For an African writer, the book is sparse on metaphors but in the dialogue at its Nigerian setting, we see a lot of the inventiveness associated with reporting non-traditional English speakers. A previous recriminatory critique of the novel by Isaac Attah Ogezi had matched a lot of Ndibe’s translated Igbo dialogues to Achebe’s masterful transliterations. This will be addressed at the end of this review. For now, it suffices to observe that the concern of the author, an acclaimed wordsmith in his own right, with grammatical propriety or lack thereof in his characters shows forth in the portrayals of the grammatical inadequacies of Pastor Uka and Chief Iba, the local government chairman in Utonki. This is a subtle sign of authorial intrusion as Ndibe tars those characters he wishes to villainise first with bad English. Foreign Gods’ nay Ndibe’s villains invariably speak bad English. If not, Chief Iba’s grammatical deficiencies would beggar credulity for a man who passed through secondary school as Ike’s classmate. This is aside the unlikelihood of two Igbo pals chatting in English Language in their village homes. Also, whatever may be said for Pentecostal preachers, bad grammar is surely one of their least deficiencies. These Ndibe’s detours to social commentary will be fully examined under message. While yet on style, Foreign Gods’ obvious Americanese is not necessarily wrong as it shows consistency in this throughout the book. However when viewed through a strictly Naija-centric prism, this becomes an issue since the default mode in our educational system and publishing house styles is the UK English. But nobody can blame Ndibe for America’s muscle in a uni-polar world which obtrudes every one of Uncle Sam’s ways including spellings into our daily lives. However young and uncritical Nigerian readers are bound to get their spellings mixed up with this insidious American linguistic flotilla. If the book gets away with its obvious Americanese, it cannot escape its Nigerianese. Standing fan/mirror are erroneously used instead of stand fan/mirror (see pp. 44, 95, 260.). Also zinc-roofed is used instead of corrugated iron sheet roofing (See pp.90, 275.).

okeygoodMessage-wise, Foreign Gods is, maybe, the fictional extension of its author’s well-known pet peeves. Ndibe is perhaps, Nigeria’s most polemical op-ed writer. His tirades against an underwhelming Nigerian state are well known. It would be inconceivable for such a person to pen fiction in which his real life concerns were not reflected. There’s yet no universal consensus around fiction’s role, even duty, to purvey a message but even art for art’s sake is a message on its own. It is how the message is mediated in a work of art that separates the amateur from the virtuoso. Ndibe does not spare the corrupt Nigerian system in Foreign Gods. Ike’s home coming to pilfer Ngene provides the perfect setting for the reader to experience Nigeria through the protagonist. And Ndibe did not disappoint. Corruption is what welcomes every visitor to Nigeria right from the airport and Ndibe emblazons this in both Ike’s arrival and departure. The customs and immigrations desks brazenly ask for bribes and display mannerlessness. However, the salient aspect of bribery serving as penalty for criminal infraction may have been unwittingly portrayed in Ike’s importation of commercial quantity gift items and seeking to export a piece of antiquity without license. Both are offenses under the law but instead of having the law take its course, its human agents in Nigeria privatise the criminal justice system. The fact that Ike was committing an offence but nonetheless feeling sanctimonious towards bribe-taking officials, is perhaps, one of the ironies of Nigeria’s corruption conundrum. The privatisation of punishment through bribe collection may therefore not be altogether misplaced in so far as it acts as marginal disincentive to crime. But the economic importance of bribery can wait for another forum. However, the same thinly-veiled social commentary on demerits without a thought spared for merits is discernible in the characterisation of Pastor Uka, the Pentecostal pastor, without any redeeming feature. Without going outside to purloin positive roles of Pentecostal ministries, is it not within the possibility threshold of the novel’s plot to imagine that Pastor Uka could have played some good roles in giving Ike’s mother some emotional stilts to make meaning of her miserable existence? In any case, not being imbeciles, she and the other proselytes to the new sect were fully compos mentisin respect of value judgements about their old Roman Catholicism and mercenary Pentecostalism. Another school of thought may hold that Ike has little moral grounds to despise a religious community that had provided a support system (for whatever it is worth) around his hapless mother while he made out with American gold-digging vixens. Again this channels the pot-calling-kettle-black conundrum of Ike’s airport experiences with the Customs.

No review of Foreign Gods can afford to overlook Isaac Attah Ogezi’s critique. In his deceptively-titled: “On the Fringes of Existence: the Immigrant Question in Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc.”,Ogezi went to great lengths to show similarities in phraseology and use of adages between passages in Foreign Gods and Chinua Achebe’s works. Ndibe in his riposte dismissed Ogezi’s critique as “jejune” saying that most of the expressions belong to the public domain in the lgbo comity of adages and expressions. After reading the novel, neither accuser nor accused would be totally wrong. While nobody can accuse Ndibe of plagiarism, what may be at issue here is a case of literary conduction with Achebe. This is the literary equivalent of the phenomenon in Physics whereby a piece of iron develops magnetism after being stroked in the magnetic field of a magnet. Ndibe enjoyed mental and physical affinity with the late literary icon and it is not inconceivable that the mentor spat into the protégé’s pen’s mouth, to paraphrase another Igbo expression. Plagiarism that is not of exact words can be tricky as thoughts cannot be plagiarised. Also proverbs, adages and sayings come in standard forms but when translating to English, differences should be noticed between an earlier work and a later one. Achebe’s classic trilogy has almost entered public domain status and many African writers unconsciously write like him. But nobody should give the impression that all there are to the smorgasbord of Igbo colloquialisms don’t go beyond:“am l speaking with water in my mouth” and “slapping thunder into one’s eyes”.

Mike Ekunno is a freelance book editor and creative writer. Mike writes fiction for fun and creative non fiction for rage. Only search engines have called him a poet which elicits a smirk from him. His writings have berthed in The Transnational, The Hamilton Stone Review, The African Roar Anthology 2013, Warscapes, bioStories, BRICKrhetoric, Dark Matter Journal, Cigale Literary Magazine, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Middle Gray Magazine, Miracle e-zine, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, The Muse, Bullet Pen and Storymoja, the last two coming with wins in continent-wide contests. He enjoys Old Testament stories when not reading creatively or writing

Naijanet, Wole Soyinka, The Gang of Four, Goebbels and the Reprobate!

The Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, like many revered thinkers is rightly worried about the declining reading culture in the 21st century and is concerned that the Internet is contributing to this dysfunction.  Soyinka is worried that relying primarily on the Internet would spell doom for books.  He raises legitimate issues that deserve to be explored in great depth. However, Soyinka is famously reticent about the Internet and the communities it has spawned. The records show that these communities have not always been kind to him. He talks about his experience with individuals and groups, some of which spilled into online forums like Naijanet in his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (see my review here).

Naijanet? Well, Nigerians have formed online communities for a long time. In the early nineties, if you had any connection with an institution of higher learning or a multinational corporation, you had access to an email account. They were initially difficult to use but gradually email readers came along, as well as the precursors of the web. Naijanet, a mailing list or “list-serve”, founded in in the early 90’s was the premier online watering hole for Nigerians at the time. Out of Naijanet came other list-serves created to meet a real or perceived need absent in Naijanet.

Naijanet was a vibrant market among academicians and professionals in the Diaspora, and a hotbed of political activism – for and against Sani Abacha’s regime. Many activists were recruited on Naijanet by either side. It became a means of communication and of rallying the troops during the prodemocracy struggle in the 90’s as Nigerians sought to topple the dictator Sani Abacha. Those were heady days. When we needed to attend a rally, we used email. When we needed to raise money, we used email. When someone died we wrote some very heartfelt and (yes, pretty bad poetry) to manage our grief. My second daughter was born on July 4, 1995. We did an e-naming ceremony for her on Naijanet and we christened her Ominira (Yoruba for freedom). We raised quite a bit of money for the cause and for things like awareness campaigns to eradicate spinal meningitis. It is a big shame that these things have not been documented anywhere, however some of these activities are in the archives at Googlegroups.

soyinkaAs far as I know, Soyinka was never a member of Naijanet himself. He clearly monitored our activities as they pertained to the prodemocracy movement. A tidbit involving Soyinka and Naijanet: In 1994, there was a young doctoral student at the University of Connecticut, Storrs (UConn). His name was Ganiyu Jaiyeola. He had a rabid contempt for MKO Abiola and was wary of Soyinka’s prodemocracy credentials. That year, UConn decided to give an award to MKO Abiola. Ganiyu wrote to his university denouncing MKO and demanded that UConn withdraw the honor. When that news got to Naijanet, there was an unspeakable uproar. Most people wanted Ganiyu’s head (he was a Naijanetter). UConn was deluged by angry phone calls from netters. Many members of Naijanet signed a petition objecting to Ganiyu’s letter and requesting that MKO be honored by UConn.

Here is the petition to Uconn. The petition, circulated online and signed by exactly 50 people from many countries abroad, no mean feat in those days, was perhaps the first naija e-petition ever. In 1994. Many of us loathed Ganiyu but from the benefit of hindsight, he was not a bad guy; he simply believed that those of us who were against  the annulment of democracy (on June 12, 1993) were thieves, phonies, carpet baggers, interlopers, etc. (insert your favorite abusive term). Many of us did not particularly care for MKO; this starry-eyed idealist simply felt at the time that for me, June 12 was the end of the shifting of the goal posts by the military. The battle grew ferocious; both sides trying to do each other in terms of the degree of abuse hurled at opponents.

Enter Soyinka. Sometime in 1995, Ganiyu decided to compile a thick unflattering dossier on Soyinka and he proceeded to distribute this dossier to the US State Department and the civil rights activist Randall Robinson who was dead-set on ending Abacha’s reign of terror. Ganiyu was a temperamental and energetic fellow and fiercely independent; whatever he set his sights on, he went after. When Soyinka got wind of Ganiyu’s activities, he became incensed and wrote a long letter excoriating Ganiyu. People close to Soyinka managed to convince him not to  mention Ganiyu by name in his missive. Ganiyu Jaiyeola’s name was replaced with the term “Reprobate.” Ganiyu loved the attention and declared that indeed he was the one that the Laureate was referring to. From that day on, the term “Reprobate” stuck on Ganiyu.

The letter, written in May 1995, begins like this and shows the beginning of Soyinka’s enduring ambivalence about the Internet:

I am an intruder, not being a NAIJANET subscriber. I don’t even know how these networks operate and, from this first, albeit indirect, encounter with this discussion and information exchange, I think it is something over extended people like myself should avoid, if only to conserve precious time and necessary equilibrium for a positive contribution to real issues. My intervention (this once only, I hope) is quite fortuitous.

A thick dossier accompanying a letter to Mr. Randall Robinson, Director of TRANSAFRICA, has just provided my first contact with NAIJANET, to which reference was made in the letter, and of which I have heard some remarks in the past. It is apparently the product of a student which is what I find singularly shocking. From the mercenaries and propaganda machinery of General Sani Abacha, one would consider this as routine, but what has a serious minded student got to do with such venal proceeding ? Opinions, even where debatable, and analysis, even where faulty, are the legitimate province of the student, but what place has a deliberate concoction of falsehood got in a student’s mind ?

I read this tract with dismay, albeit, ironically, with some illumination. I had been encountering, in recent times, some sturdily held distortions of the truth of events in Nigeria in astute minds which would normally discountenance the predictable lies of government functionaries. Coming from supposed students or independent professionals, who are trained to respect facts, however, I begin to understand why such blatant lies actually obtain a hold in their thinking. NAIJANET obviously has some perverse entities in its midst and, considering the crisis of our times, I feel that I must use this instance to affirm their self exposure to members of NAIJANET and their correspondents.

You may read the rest of Soyinka’s letter here.

Enter Jude Uzonwanne, a 22- or so year old. Somehow Jude had gotten close to Soyinka. He is mentioned as one of the Gang of Four in Soyinka’s book, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Jude suffered immensely from his youth and he was not exactly the most principled of fellows. Things were getting decidedly dangerous online and on the ground and another netter Mukhtar Dan’Iyan, aka @MrAyeDee on Twitter  (mentioned in the book, please read this blog post in which in which I excerpted the pertinent passage) decided to stage a sting. He created a fake email address purporting to be trolling for recruits on behalf of the dictator General Sani Abacha. Jude fell for this bait and sent in a long resume of his and an equally long rambling essay on how General Abacha might use certain tools of propaganda to keep the masses down. His application started like this:

I would like to become a member of your organization. After carefully evaluating the current difficulties facing the Abacha Administration, I have decided that it… is in Nigeria’s National Security interest to cooperate with the current administration. After careful thought, I believe I should bring to bear, what my professors describe as my “prodigious intellect.” If accepted, I would bring to the organization my considerable talents; as an Honors Economics and History candidate, a World Bank Project research assistant, and a member of my university’s Board of Managers, I think I am well placed to understand the philosophical strains that propel behavior in the West. I think I can help the FGN reconstruct her rather battered image. It will be a tough task, but if certain tactical steps are taken, I believe we can achieve the same level of respectability that General Pinochet of Chile achieved between 1979 – 88. Also, if we are more respectful to the incisive powers of economic rationalization of human behavior, I think General Abacha’s Government can be in power as long as it wishes. But there are certain steps that need to be taken in the next few weeks. I hope you would carefully weigh my words; I look forward to joining the team of the Best and the Brightest.

From that day on, Jude was miserable, exposed as a Goebbels. Jude’s “application” to Abacha was circulated among a tight-knit group of Naijanetters. At some point, Jude wrote a long piece that was published in Nigeria that basically accused the pro-democracy movement and Soyinka specifically of violence (bombs, etc.).To cut a long story short, Kongi erupted in rage once more. Kongi faxed me at home a letter (dated December 24, 1996 on Emory University letterhead) excoriating Jude with the subject title “Jude “Goebbels” Uzonwanne.” He asked me to type it verbatim on to Naijanet:

Dear Dr. Onabanjo,

Re: Jude ‘Goebbels” Uzonwanne

Thank you very much for sending me the latest splurge from our young Goebbels. I agree with you that his pronouncements have now exceeded a mere “nuisance factor” and should be addressed in some form or the other. It is tempting to dismiss him as a poor man’s Walter Mitty, given the elaborate fantasy world he inhabits. I have good reasons to conclude that we are dealing here with a mimic Goebbels, one who has been given a distinctive mission and is resolved to execute it without the slightest scruple. The poor boy is a failed agent provocateur.

I have therefore passed the documents on to the F.B.I. with which, as you know, I am obliged to keep in touch over intelligence reports on the threats to my life. Uzonwanne’s statements are likely to provide crucial pieces in the diabolical jigsaw being constructed from Aso Rock to tie me to the bombings at home, and thus justify plans to try me ‘in absentia” and pass a formal death sentence. We are kept informed about these moves, I assure you. In the meantime, Uzonwanne should be encouraged to spew, in any medium he chooses, all the “dark secrets” that he claims to have about my activities. I am insisting to the FBI that they investigate every single one of them, then deal appropriately with whoever has been spreading dangerous falsehood, or whose activities transgress the laws of this nation.

In the meantime, let me assure you and others who have expressed concern that I have not yet reached dotage. To pick out just one among this plethora of concoctions – if I wished to set up an army, I would not pick as my “Chief of Staff” a twenty-two year old college boy who has never even attended a cadet course, is woefully short-sighted, and weaves fantasies around himself such as being in control of seven million dollars, a sum allegedly donated by rival oil companies that wished to end Shell’s domination in Nigeria and carve up its empire among themselves. There is of course a lot more, but I think I should let the FBI take over from there.

Happy Christmas to you and your family
Wole Soyinka
Copy: UDFN membership

I was not close to Soyinka, where he was a revered god, I was merely a foot soldier, however, I decided without telling him so that I was not going to post it on Naijanet, certainly not right away. It was brimming with rage against a young man and I didn’t see someone of Soyinka’s stature tangling with a kid. I figured he would sleep over it and call me back to not post it. Shortly after, the letter appeared on Naijanet. Kongi had gotten another netter to post it since I was dawdling! One thing you can say for Soyinka, he is connected.

As for that petition to the University of Connecticut, I am taken by the idealism of our youth at the time, the prose fairly sings of our passion, dreams and naiveté:

We believe it is appropriate to view Chief Abiola as a universal symbol of the Nigerian people’s yearning to join the league of those nations that have established a culture of respect and reverence for individual freedom, dignity and the collective views of the people. The Nigerian people have spoken loudly and clearly; this struggle is not about one individual. It is about the immediate and long-term survival of a nation that is greater than any one individual. Your action is an endorsement of the legitimate cry of our people for freedom.

In this light, we applaud your university’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate degree on Chief M.K.O. Abiola. Your gracious and courageous decision is an affirmation of your belief in the just struggle for democracy by the Nigerian people. As we write, the dictatorship continues to shut down all voices of reason and progress within Nigeria’s walls. As we write a once vibrant nation is being throttled economically by the intransigence of a few that have elevated their personal agenda above the dreams and aspirations of an overwhelming majority. Your action is a rallying bugle call to the international community. It says to all of us: this disgraceful display of despotism and intolerance must stop.

Today, fifteen years after democracy was installed in Nigeria, very few would disagree with Ganiyu’s admonition at the time. Not much has changed. Ganiyu was right. We were fooled by wolves.