Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Book Reviews

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.

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.

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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!

On beauty and narrative in Jola Naibi’s Terra Cotta Beauty

I enjoyed reading Terra Cotta Beauty, Jola Naibi’s book of short stories. Yes, I enjoyed it a lot; it took me back to Lagos, the land of my birth. It is a quiet little persistent book. As I read, I grew to respect the book before me. The characters are well-developed and unlike the caricatures that characterize the products of poverty porn, they carry themselves with the dignity of thinking albeit long-suffering human beings. There are very few editorial issues in the book, a great feat for a self-published book. As literature goes, this is not what I would call a muscular literary work but it hit my hunger spot. I am happy.

So what is the book about? As far as I can tell, it is about life in Lagos in the nineties and possibly early 200o’s. If you don’t know where Lagos is, you can stop right here, it is okay. There are seven stories in the collection, each connected to each other in a clever and innovative way.TerraReal

Ol’boi, the first story, a thrilling story about family, the violence of robbery and corruption, starts out the collection with great promise:

“They had lived on that street for as long as he could remember. It was a short street that ended in a T-shape at a cement wall that shielded the backyard of another compound on another street. Everyone in the entire neighborhood dumped their rubbish at this end of the street. Very rarely the authorities would clear the trash, but most of the time there was a huge pile of garbage at the end of the street which stunk like rotten eggs.” (p 1)

A Laughing Matter, and Terra-Cotta Beauty, both offer a unique look into the tyranny of military dictatorships and patriarchy and the brave fight against both dysfunctions. They were my two favorite stories in the collection. Terra-Cotta Beauty, the piece that bears the book’s title is a lovely read, with pretty prose like this: “My mother… often smelled of the earth. It was the same matinal smell that my grandmother, who would end up raising me had.” (p 27)

Iridiscent hope is a travelogue of sorts as the main protagonist hawks her hope for a better life in Lagos and in her travels from home of the day to work, exposes the reader to the precariousness of hope, and life in Lagos. It was my least favorite story, it went nowhere fast and it read like reportage from a distracted journalist. By the way, you can read it here online on Africanwriter.com.

Running in the Wrong Direction is a moving commentary on migration, the search for meaning, peace and prosperity in life. It is ultimately a commentary on child labor and the plight of young children who are forced to leave the comfort of home to seek prosperity in the war that is the typical African city, this time, Lagos.

The Fire Starter uses an account of arson to paint a compelling portrait of class struggle. Well done.

The Sacred Geometry of Chance is down to earth African romance, shorn of the mimicry that is much of romance literature by many African authors. It is also a commentary on patriarchy, teen sexuality and pregnancy. It does go on too long and ends strangely, well, it does not end. I loved this line: “Until it jumps into hot water, a frog does not realize that there are two worlds.” (p 117) Now, that is good writing!

There is a good interview of Jola Naibi here. She writes beautifully, several passages in the book are full of gems like “He taught himself to read and write; whenever he saw books, his heart soared.” (p 92). You will not find the unctuous sermons that pass for literature in much of contemporary African literature, feminism, patriarchy, child and marital abuse, blah, blah, blah. She simply writes as she remembers. The issues are not the stories; they are part of the stories’ lives. Nice and refreshing.

Terra Cotta Beauty is not a perfect book. For one thing, it is a bit too restrained for my liking, somewhat of a victim to be liked by all, especially the West. Still, it is a good read; I recommend it highly, especially for teenagers and young adults. Illustrations, perhaps using pencil sketches would have been nice to break up the monotony of text and still my attention deficit disorder. Every now and then, the prose is too clinical, a mechanical clack clack clack of the keyboard – a writer, writing as if unsure of herself. Again, the use of italics for indigenous words rankles. Why capitalize molue in the 21st century? It is an English word, for heaven’s sakes. Google it.

naibi2Naibi deploys impeccable Pidgin English which she promptly italicizes and explains with standard English. I really hate that she does this.

“Wetin dey do you now? (“What is wrong with you?”), his companion spat at him. “You just dey do like person wen don lose im mama, you no hear de tin wey Ol’Boy talk—im say mission accomplished! So why you dey slack now?” (“What’s wrong with you?” “You are acting like someone who has lost his mother. You heard what Ol’Boi said—-mission accomplished! Why are you slacking?”) (p 93)

Again, I don’t like that Naibi italicizes the Pidgin English, and then helpfully translates it, presumably, to Western readers. It is what it is but I prefer this approach to the bastardization of pidgin preferred by Nigerian writers who write primarily for the West’s consumption. A lot is lost in the unnecessary translation. It is perhaps true that the paying audience is in the West and the writer is under a lot of pressure to get as wide an audience as possible, but there are unintended consequences. The writers of the West gained traction in other climes by being relentlessly insular even before the advent of Google. That insularity bred a nagging curiosity in readers. It is counter-intuitive but I suggest strongly that African writers need to find the muscle to be insular, to force Western readers to be curious enough to want to learn about African communities by getting off their duff and doing the research themselves. But then, we are not negotiating from a position of strength. They have the money and the publishing houses. This is why I love Facebook and Twitter; you can’t italicize egusi over there. At least not yet. Don’t mind me jor, Terra Cotta Beauty is a good read. Stop reading me and go buy a copy. Now. It is an order. LOL!

[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

A. Igoni Barrett, love, power, stories, living books, and all that jazz

“There are other human experiences and emotions to write about beside anger. Poems are not only for gunning, for other people, no matter how pernicious they may be. Anger is a tiny bit of human existence and should never be over-orchestrated. I am very suspicious of ‘Protest Poetry’. Poetry can be redemptive without being a banal protest; without exuding forced righteousness. Shrillness cheapens poems. A nation that demands that the entirety of its poetry should only address socio-political ills must be delusional, hysterical, and uninhabitable. A poet should not only be wracked with the meanness of history.”

– Uche Nduka in an interview with Uche Peter Umez

Igoni Barrett’s Love is Power, or Something Like That is a good, albeit frustrating read, those who love good writing will enjoy the power, intellect and industry that Barrett brings to this collection of nine tales. The Kindle copy is published by Graywolf Press, and the hard copy by Farafina Publishers. You should read the stories, if you’ve not already read them elsewhere online; Barrett displays great range in the writing. He is a powerful writer, and it shows in the stories, well it mostly does, for even with his immense talents and skills, this is a frustrating book. If the stories look familiar to some readers, it is because the book is really an archive of works previously published online. This is becoming a pattern with new writing – it portends the future of the book. The lot of the artist in the 21st century is to endure the book as a museum. Indeed it is the case that a frugal and enterprising reader could probably cobble these stories together free off of the Internet by simply trolling the Internet. I loved that the stories were well edited, some would say over-edited, perhaps to broaden the buying market to the West where the money is. Still I found a few editing issues. I wouldn’t give the publishers much credit for the editing quality since they were previously published by online journals that pride themselves on high publishing standards.

It is interesting, reading through the numerous blurbs in the book by many writers (Teju Cole, Binyavanga Wainaina, Doreen Baingana, Helon Habila, Michela Wrong, etc.) they speak mostly of Barrett as a writer of great talent and skills, rather than to the contents of the book. This is appropriate; they are on to something. As I often argue, it is unfair to judge today’s African writers solely on the output of their books. Chinua Achebe’s generation had only the book as the canvas for their literary output. Today’s generation is suffering an embarrassment of riches and a cruel paradox: They are doing great work in the new frontier – the Internet, that publisher of choice for young African writers – struggling with the reality and notion – that to be taken seriously as a writer one must have published a book – any book. For writers in Africa faced with a publishing industry that is at best mediocre, this is a tragedy. They are being judged by circumstances beyond their control. Love is Power or Something Like That is a good collection of stories but it does not even begin to light a candle to Barrett’s brilliance, innovation and leadership in telling the stories of Africa on the Internet. That is a shame, for when the history of online writing is told, at least with respect to African writing, Barrett’s name deserves to be up there with all the other digital warriors too numerous to mention that have ensured that Africa is undergoing a renaissance in literature.

So, let’s talk about the book. I have said it is an uneven book in terms of the quality of the stories, stories that stay with me because they are unrelenting in their sadness and despair. The stories bathe the reader with detailed vivid, disturbing imagination. Desolation, despair and mind-numbing suffering are everywhere. You get used to reading stuff like this:

The bathroom was small, low-ceilinged, and stank of mildew. A colony of chitinous creatures thrived in the wet earth underneath the metal bathtub. She glanced around out of habit to see if any cockroaches had ignored the daylight signal to return to their hiding places, but in the dim lighting, her eyesight failed her.

Barrett, A. Igoni (2013-05-07). Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories (Kindle Locations 73-75). Graywolf Press. Kindle Edition.

What strikes the reader is how Barrett expertly documents the intellectual and spiritual emptiness of life in contemporary Nigeria. Nigeria comes across as one vast farce, filled with suffering, incompetence and mediocre thinking. When the reader comes across signs of deep introspection in the characters one gasps with relief. The writer is challenged to entertain the reader with more than vacuous pablum. Nigeria hasn’t changed much; it is the same old stuff, the usual anxieties that seem to preoccupy African writers: immigration or the movement to other climes, the many vices of relationships (betrayal, infidelity), state sanctioned brigandage in the Nigerian Police Force. The new Christianity and prosperity churches, corruption, alcoholism, patriarchy, rape, you name it, all of Black Africa’s dysfunctions are collected like drunken deadbeats and made to stand at attention. It is discomfiting. In Barrett’s world, people live like lower animals. That is where his muse inhabits. There are all these asymptotes everywhere; Barrett is always questioning one injustice or the other, smirking at one dysfunction or the other. In unsparing detail. Many of these stories are beyond dark and disturbing. The darkness rushes and rises into a raging crescendo. And you are stunned by the casualness of evil. The Nigeria here is another planet. Dark. These are sad stories. Sometimes though, the love still shines through the savagery. Somehow you are reminded that these are human beings. There is humor, of the wry variety, not enough of it, alas. Barnett takes himself very seriously. Which reminds me, graphic illustrations would have broken the monotony of text.

About the stories, for my money, the piece, The Worst Thing That Happened is probably the most sophisticated short story I have read in recent times. This story alone is worth the price of the book. And yes, it debuted in Guernica (here). It contains some of Barrett’s most poignant prose. This is a deeply rich and brilliant conversation about immigration, relationships, the extended family, and fraying ties in a global world. This is brilliant, muscular writing strutting about with quiet dignity. The reader will enjoy cool lines like this one:

A FanYogo carton lay on the road, and strawberry yogurt had leaked out and pooled on her paved frontage, a lurid pink surface dive-bombed by flies. (Kindle Locations 103-104)

In a clever twist, Barrett ties it to another story in the book, Perpetua and GodSpeed, another lovely story marked by disciplined, tightly woven sentences that pounce into a beautiful trot. Here there is a tender reflection on fatherhood and one grows to admire Barrett’s eclectic eye.

Dream Chaser comes across as a dated story about 90’s style Internet scams. I am not sure I would call this a short story, whatever it is, I enjoyed it a bit. It needed more work and sounded somewhat contrived.

The Shape of a Full Circle is is a dizzying goulash of dysfunctions thrown together like empty bottles of alcohol enduring a drunk’s leer. In this story, a son’s love for the mother is unbroken by the hurtful dysfunction the ravages of his mother’s inner darkness. Every dysfunction is here, checked meticulously – alcoholism, an absent father, child abuse, theft, rampaging thugs, a society in decline. It is grossly overdone. And here, the prose comes alive and dies, comes alive and dies, as a beautiful writer is restrained by over-eager editors pulled apart by competing visions – a memorandum versus straight luscious writing. By the way, rats are everywhere in Barrett’s stories. Barett can paint the savagery, brutality, despair and helplessness from the incompetence that sometimes passes for life. These are disturbing tales of alcoholism and child neglect and abuse. The stories occasionally redeem themselves with lines like this:

Late into the night, while she nibbled the food and sucked the bottle, Daoju Anabraba apologized to her son, over and over again , for the life they were living, for her failure as a mother, for killing his grandfather. Dimié Abrakasa, a veteran of these episodes, kept his silence. Her speech grew slurred and slid farther into her throat; her eyelids sank, struggled, fell. She cried in sleep, the bottle clutched to her chest. She farted, loud and continuous. When her sobs became snores, Dimié Abrakasa rose from his seat at the foot of the bed. He freed the bottle from her grasp and placed it by the wall, where her hand, in the morning, would reach for it. Then he covered her up and blew out the light. (Kindle Locations 856-861)

This story houses some pretty prose poetry. It is as if Barrett is in a trance. Hear him:

The world turned gray, the temperature plummeted, and gusts of wind sprang up. The wind grew stronger and flung dust into the air. A lightning flash split the gloom and a rumble of cascading boulders burst from the skies. Another flash, sulphuric in its intensity— the thunderclap was like a shredding of the heavens. Birds crawled across the sky with panicked cries. There was a lull, everything froze in that instant; and then, with a sound like burning grass, rain fell. The raindrops had not made landfall when a bolt of blue-white lightning, like a forked tongue, streaked the sky, and one of its prongs struck a fleeing swallow. The bird stalled in midflight, then began to tumble earthward as the rain hit the ground. Through sheets of crashing water, pedestrians sprinted for cover. Puddles formed on the sidewalks, then flowed together and rushed for the drains, which brimmed over and poured water onto the road. The road became a river. Car engines drank water, coughed out steam, and died. Both sides of the road— and the sidewalks, too— got jammed. The horn blares of motorists became one long, unbroken blast. (Kindle Locations 536-539)

Beautiful. You wish he would produce prose like this from beginning to end. Hunting for delicacies like this was a perverse hunt, alas. And here he is channeling Ben Okri’s malarial, febrile brilliance. He writes: “The road became a river.” And you remember Ben Okri’s famous opening lines in The Famished Road:

“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.”

In Love is Power, or Something Like That, a troubled policeman tries hard to hold on to his sanity and his family. It is violent and bloody. A man is flogged mercilessly – with a cow’s leg snatched from a butcher’s stall. Still through the nightmarish story, pretty lines peek out of the undergrowth to gawk at the traumatized reader.

He spoke English like one who thought in it. (Kindle Locations 1152-1153)

From the bushes night sounds came: scrabbling noises in the undergrowth, predatory screeches and distressed squeals, the sheesh of breeze in the treetops. (Kindle Locations 1120-1121)

He felt how the warmth of the liquor would spread through his throat, his chest; but his imagination couldn’t replicate the solid weight of good alcohol hitting the belly. He’d made a pledge: no more, not when he was in uniform. Not after the time he broke his wife’s arm in two places and had to accept her judgment when she blamed the reek of his breath. She had laid down her ultimatum from the safety of Mama Adaobi’s doorway, and he, kneeling before her in his underwear, hungover and full of remorse, had given his word. (Kindle Locations 1111-1115)

My Smelling Mouth Problem is a riff on halitosis which turns into social commentary. It was a creative experiment gleefully ambushed by the red ink of editors.

Trophy is a lovely story that plumbs the mystery of the bonds of friendship. Still the sadness seeps through; Nigerians are aliens with “skin the color of rotted wood.” It is a story that rides several dysfunctions – sleepy dead end towns with teachers having sex with their teen wards, teen sex and promiscuity. Wretched lives in various degrees of disarray are examined ad nauseam until the reader screams, “STOP!”

The Little Girl with Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh is a tale of love and forbidden sex. Two young cousins fall in love. A little girl suffers the teen blues. I must say it is at once disturbing and affecting. A disturbing love story. There are nice lines:

The air smelled like rain. (Kindle Location 1583).

Okay, he said, and dug his elbow into the bed, braced his jaw against his fisted hand, stared at her with widened eyes and pouted lips, a playful face that fell away as he continued— since you’re forcing me. I like your eyes. I like the way they light up when you’re happy. I like your legs. I like the way you walk, especially when you’re hurrying, the way you throw your feet, like a child who’s about to fall. I like your nose, and your mouth, and your breath. I like the way your breath smells. Like melted ice cream. Wow, she said in a hushed, wondering voice; and then she adjusted her legs. His hand slid between her thighs. (Kindle Locations 1757-1762)

In A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings racism confronts prejudice and one is left stunned and confused by Barrett’s brilliant but disconcerting literary sleight of hand. The snarkiness is delightful actually, a welcome release from the over-editing of most of the stories. If you want to confirm that Igoni can write, start here:

The engine of Nairobi is fired by cash-crop farming, oiled by tourism, and steered by NGO money. Everywhere you turn in the city you find NGO people, camouflaged by straw hats and safari boots and the skin color of the tourist, white. In the supermarkets (Indian-run), the swanky restaurants (white Kenyan– run), the bus parks, souvenir bazaars, immigration offices (black Kenyan– run), luxurious hotels and safari lodges (British-run), AIDS patients’ wards and spoken-word poetry slams (American-funded), and, in small sightseeing groups, in Kibera, the largest zoo in Africa. (Kindle Locations 2495-2499).

barrett picBarrett is relentless in his message, and one reflects on the fate of women and children in Nigeria and Africa. Men are the aggressors on these pages – and in real life. Women have no chance, their saviors are too busy writing books and setting up NGOs. These are violent, abusive male authority figures accountable to no one. The unfortunate subtext: The real humans are women, children and white folks. The men of Nigeria are savage beasts, sub-humans. It is what it is. Or not. Barrett is the writer as effete judge looking into a troubled society with focused supercilious concentration, many good lines wasted on stereotype and jaded cynicism. Many times the stories gasp for air and energy. Sometimes, the passion rises, and then falls flat, bored lion too lazy to pursue prey. Sometimes Barrett makes a great deal of paying attention to detail, but for what purpose? Barrett’s facility with pidgin English is sadly under-used; where he does, it is compromised by over-editing presumably for a broader audience. The paying readership is in the West. I don’t blame Barrett, but this hurts.

Let me share some random thoughts and use Barrett’s book to annoy my readers with my soapbox rants. We must define the narrative and the terms of engagement with the world more boldly. These books expose us as timid and beholden to a conservative establishment of ancient gatekeepers. When Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in 1986, VS Naipaul in his typical bluster asked: “Has he written anything?” Naipaul was being silly and myopic, Soyinka deserved the prize, not just based on the quality and quantity of his works as evidenced by his books, but based on the sum total of his life as an intellectual and an activist. Today, almost three decades later, it is even more important that African writers be judged on the sum total of their works, not just by their books. In the 21st century, the book as a medium of expression serves brilliant young writers. Barrett is one of the victims. They think as if they are on social media and they are forced to write on paper to get stature. In the process, they are losing readers by the millions. Writers, African writers especially have an opportunity to re-capture the love of good reading and storytelling by going to meet readers where they now congregate, and speaking to them in the language and cadence they understand, cherish and relish – in the call-and-response 3-D world they live in – that community of communities we call the Internet.

We live in a world full of innovative practices in literature, many pioneered by young Africans. The question becomes: Why do brilliant young writers and thinkers feel incomplete until they have stapled their thoughts into books few will read?  In addition to writing books, African writers must actively search for and nurture innovative initiatives, like the Bride Price app, three dimensional e-books, journals and conversations that deploy hot links, illustrations, and the call and response interactions of the reader and the writer. Nothing for me is sadder and more frustrating than visiting writers’ conferences and other meeting places where digital pioneers and leaders spend their time talking about and furtively hawking poorly produced books to a handful of attendees. At these meeting places, discussions about literature online are limited and usually come across as an afterthought. It is clear to me also that prizes like the NLNG Prize are an expensive exercise in mimicry. We don’t need prizes as much as we need supports to build innovative architectures for 21st century African literature.

This is my beef with books: In the 21st century, our creativity is still centered around the book. That paradigm shifted a long time ago. We should be having literary NOT book fairs and festivals. The young should elbow out gerontocracy from scarce resources. In terms of African literature as it exists online, the world is sitting on a goldmine. The answer is not to ignore the youth behind these new forms of storytelling, but to support them. They are the new storytellers. I will say this until I am blue in the face: social media is the publisher of choice for young African writers. Online, the writer does not have to worry about being edited to bland death by over-eager Western editors. The Internet does not ask them to italicize egusi, it laughs at their jokes and doesn’t call them “ethnic.”  In the villages of social media, writers write of sorrows and despair and heartbreak, they also write of musicians who sing pretty songs, about recharge cards, bank alerts and ATMs. When you add their stories to what obtains in books like Love is Power or Something Like That, the reader gets a well rounded  trajectory of African narrative. There are all these opportunities; alas a timid generation of writers bows to laziness, orthodoxy, patriarchy and western literary imperialism.

To be fair, there are several constraints. The Internet is wild untamed territory; poaching and disorder are at an all-time high and writers and publishers are struggling to be heard and make money at the same time. It doesn’t help that there is a dearth of innovation – traditional publishing houses have invested billions of dollars in 20th century publishing architecture. It is tough for them to turn things around on a dime. In a perverse sense, Africa on the other hand has few such constraints, the architecture is not there; however many new publishers hamstring themselves daily by investing in ancient methods. I say to them, look around you, the Internet is the publisher of choice for young African writers. Build an architecture from scratch – and they will flock to you as they flock to Linda Ikeji’s blog and as they flocked to the Bride Price app. The bride price app is perhaps the most brilliant short story ever written by an African in the past decade. The data is there to prove it; there were 12million hits, 7million unique users, and 18million unique social conversations. And one suspects that the author has made money off the app’s global reach. Ask Editi Effiong. He is African. He is not waiting for the West to help him out.

Finally, for me, the most haunting and evocative line in Barrett’s book is in the story A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings: “I got my things and left.” And then the reader remembers why it spoke to him. Dambudzo Marechera. Helon Habila considers “I got my things and left, the first line in Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, the coolest opening line in African literature I agree. Barrett loves famous opening lines.

Moses Ochonu: Africa in Fragments and the limits and dangers of a single literary medium

Reading Professor Moses Ochonu’s new book, Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity was not an easy task. It was no fault of the book, a well-written engaging and eminently insightful book. It simply fell victim to my newly acquired digital ADHD,  I rarely read books these days, I do read nonstop, pretty much anything I can lay my eyes on online. The book as a literary medium is in many ways a distraction from what my detractors would call an unhealthy obsession with the digital world.  Yes, as far as I am concerned, books are fast becoming a distraction in the 21st century. Thankfully, Ochonu’s book was worth my time, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and I whole-heartedly recommend it to all those who are interested in matters Nigerian and African.  It is a substantial contribution in the seemingly eternal battle to make the world see Africa’s sophisticated humanity through broader and more objective optics.

 s200_moses_ochonuWho is Ochonu? In the 21st century, it is impossible to talk about a book, without talking about the author and the sum total of his or her works and world view. Thanks to the Internet, the book is just one medium of expression deployed by the typical thinker.  Ochonu is one of the smartest and most prolific public intellectuals I have never met. Although he is less well-known than his more fiery counterparts – Pius Adesanmi, Okey Ndibe, Sonala Olumhese, etc., he is just as passionate, erudite and uncompromising in his ideals and vision for the way things should be in Nigeria. Ochonu has an uncanny, disciplined ability to hone in on an issue and spur robust, feisty conversations on the Internet, especially on the USA-Africa Dialogue forum, a list-serve and mailing list of professionals and academics who are mostly from or affiliated with Africa.  As a side note, the USA-Africa Dialogue forum is run by the world-renowned History scholar, Professor Toyin Falola, and is populated by perhaps some of the smartest and most prolific academics birthed by Africa (read my review of his awesome memoir, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt here). You should read the discussion threads on there and marvel at how much is out there that is rich and available and free to the world. It is an honor to be part of such a pantheon and there has to be a way of introducing a resource like this group to formal classroom instruction. The culture of the Internet mailing list is dying off but if I had to recommend a mailing list it would be the USA-Africa Dialogue forum; on a good evening, its many combatants could be e-seen holding forth and creating a dust storm of rigorous intellectual provocation. It is not always pretty in that pantheon of eggheads, but there is never a dull moment.

Ochonu is a fine scholar, extremely well read and it shows in the book. His ruminations in the book span a broad range of topics that all have depth. The essays are engaging in the style that I have gotten used to in mailing lists, social media and the Internet in general. This book would be an awesome addition to any curriculum resource on Nigeria and Africa, especially in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions, where students are coming in from broken classrooms that do not teach history, because, the government has outlawed history from the curriculum. Ochonu is an intense intellectual, with a razor sharp intellect that is matched only by his passion for the work. As an example, Ochonu wrote the definitive take-down on Mallam Nair Ahmad el-Rufai (Dealing with the el-Rufai nuisance). It is a beautiful essay, crisp and focused on holding a former public official accountable, brimming with damning data and analysis, one that has yet to be responded to by El-Rufai since it was written. Because there is nothing to respond to. We are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.

Africa in Fragments is a well-researched book, invaluable to any student of contemporary history, thanks to its detailed notes and references; the references alone are invaluable and are worth every penny of the book’s cost. Priceless tip and shameless plug: Buy the Kindle version, it is cheaper. What specifically is the book about? Well, I came up with this brilliant idea of listing the titles of the twenty six essays in the book to give you a sense of the book. They are laid out in three sections:

Section I: How Nigeria can survive; The other problems of corruption; The case for real constitutional reform; Nigerians’ love-hate relationship with government; The “federal character” conundrum; Can Nigeria afford (literally) this democracy?; Northern elites and Northern economic backwardness; The limits of electoral reform. Section II: My Oga is better than yours; Anti-intellectualism and book people; Bongos Ikwue and Idoma cultural cosmopolitanism; Names and naming in Nigeria; Helicopter escapes and the common good; The patriotism blackmail. Section III: Africa, corruption, and moral consequence; Abuja millennium tower and the problem of explaining Africa; Arab Racism against Black Africans: Toward an understanding; Boko Haram, African Islam, and foreign Islamic Heterodoxy; African participation in the Atlantic slave trade: A deconstructionist approach; Why do Africans migrate to the West?; Immigrants, uprising, and the revenge of history; Of African immigrants and African Americans; Debt cancellation, aid, and Africa: A moral response to critics; Race, racism, and the immigrant black experience in Euro-America; Nollywood and the functional logic of mediocrity; Toward a new African renaissance.

There is so much to like about this book. The chapter, Arab Racism Against Black Africans: Toward An Understanding is a provocative and important essay. He confronts the late great Professor Ali Mazrui’s views vigorously and gleefully entertains the reader with punchy paragraphs:

Arab racism is so deep that it is inscribed in the fundamental semantic structure of the Arabic language. To this day, the generic word for a black person in the Arab-speaking world is the preface abd, which translates as “slave.” Although abd is used in reverential contexts to denote devotion, as in abd-allah (slave or servant of God), its generic usage for blacks in the Arab world is a throwback to the slave status of the ancestors of black Arabs and is clearly pejorative. This linguistic norm, among many other racially charged ones, is an expressive constant that holds true for the entire Arab-speaking world regardless of dialect and orthography.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 2405-2411). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Ochonu’s essays in this book make the case eloquently that corruption is in every cell of Nigeria’s governance. As I said earlier, Ochonu wrote the most authoritative and competent essay on the narcissism of el-rufai. You can’t link to it in the book (of course not!) but here, in Chapter 2, The Other Problems of Corruption, read, laugh, – and weep at a country on her knees from the relentless pillaging by her leaders. And Ochonu has sharp elbows; the chapter The Patriotism Blackmail is a resoundingly defiant middle finger to chants of Afropessimism leveled by alleged “patriots” against those deemed too critical of African states.

In Northern Elites and Northern Economic Backwardness, Ochonu proves that this is a rich book as he confronts Northern leadership and calls them out on their performance lapses.

[T]he ideal that underpins federal character does not square with a widely shared and expressed ideal: the preference for residency rather than ancestral origin as the supreme marker of citizenship/ indigene rights. In the wake of recent ethno -religious crises, this ideal has gained currency across the political and intellectual spectrums. Conversely, there has been widespread outrage at the practical consequences of the indigene– settler divide.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 978-981). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In Why Do Africans Migrate to the West? Ochonu provides a unique perspective that perhaps could be bolstered even more by the voices of the  new underclass coming in droves from economically sacked African nations. The essay Of African Immigrants and African Americans is perhaps the most ambitious piece I have ever read, certainly a more complex and robust intervention than Adichie’s Americanah. It is a bit controversial as he tries (unsuccessfully, in my humble opinion) to offer an alternative meaning to the pejorative term Akata. Regardless, the best narrative space for an African immigrant interested in documenting the immigrant experience is the blog, twitter and Facebook. These are breathing living spaces for breathing living stories.

In Boko Haram, African Islam, And Foreign Islamic Heterodoxy, Ochonu struts his stuff majestically; this is scholarship at its best. It is a powerful, rich essay, I highly recommend it. If you read nothing else this year, please read this one. He detaches himself from an analysis, he can be dispassionate and clinical but yet deeply engaging.

Nollywood and the Functional Logic of Mediocrity is an amusing if somewhat farcical defense of mediocrity. Nollywood mirrors the society. Many would disagree vehemently with his take on Nollywood. I also loved his compelling and robust defense of the charity work of folks like Bono and Geldof and force Africans to look inwards for their help to avoid the interventions of Western “do-gooders.”

Sometimes, Ochonu seems genuinely baffled by the bizarre levels of corruption and excess of Black Africa’s leaders. The answer is deeper than the megalomania and kleptomania that fuel virtually all of Africa’s leaders. By the way, for those interested in savagery, here are graphic pictures of Mobutu’s excesses ($100 million palace) in ruins, here; in particular watch this BBC video clip.

africaOchonuWe must ask however, especially of Nigeria’s troubles: What is the state of the environment that has spawned these dysfunctions? The book is silent on that question. Without the back and forth of online dialogue, something is sometimes lost in the translation. In my opinion, Ochonu’s book does not go far enough, it is about [the lack of] accountability, a resounding failure of leadership, and I am not just talking political leadership. The analysis should be simple: There has been no substantive restructuring of any of Nigeria’s institutions since her alleged independence from colonialism in 1960. Most of Nigeria’s structures are 19th century holdovers from the colonial days. The result is a glaring 20th century caricature nation in the 21st century. True accountability is the crux of Nigeria’s current problem. I must say to Ochonu’s credit, he gave it a great shot in the essay Can Nigeria (Literally) Afford This Democracy? It is an insightful and rigorous intervention of this subject that offers, or at least hints at, alternatives. What a refreshing concept. Here, Ochonu’s passion is almost at full throttle; still it does not match his killer performances in the digital spaces that he stalks. It is not his fault, the book as a medium does poor justice to his intellect, passion and energy. You can’t contain the Ochonus, Adesanmis and Olumhenses in a mere book. They need an infinite canvas. That would be the Internet.

Africa in Fragments offers an opportunity for me to talk about the poor job the hard copy book is doing to documented thought in the 21st century. For Ochonu’s mind and industry, the book as a medium does a poor job. Even when the book is ported to the Internet as an “e-book” it is akin to using the computer as a typewriter. Let me explain. The links in the Bibliography section are not hypertext on Kindle. You would have to copy and paste it onto a browser to use it. Traditional publishers don’t get it, they are fighting a change that came yesterday, using the Internet as if it were a typewriter. Publishers, in order to survive, have to align their vision with how people, especially the youth now live. This is not how youths of today read. Youngsters are being forced to master arcane styles of referencing using “MLA” or “ALA” format. These styles are not sustainable. I point this out because Ochonu’s book is essentially an archive of his viewpoints that were previously expressed in online forums, they are written as such and it shows. Missing is the robustness of discourse that the thoughts were part of; you would have to go to the threads online to get a feel for the tenor, content and trajectory of the discourse, because there you would see the responses to Ochonu’s ideas by other intellectuals. Here, it sometimes reads like a lecture, instead of an important part of a thread or conversation. I dream of a living breathing e-book, complete with running discussion threads embedded, hyperlinks to all the resources in the essays and opportunities for comments – almost blog-like. I would be willing to pay a modest fee to subscribe to Ochonu’s mind in such an endeavor.

Ochonu also takes time in the book to explore the role of African writers and intellectuals in perpetuating the myth of the single story. However, I howled with mirth at the MLA formatted footnote of Adichie’s Ted Talk. In the book’s bibliography this is the citation for Adichie’s video, The Dangers of a Single Story:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Dangers of a Single Story,” TED Talk, July 2009. http:// http://www.ted.com/ talks/ chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html. Accessed on February 4, 2014.

If the gatekeepers of tradition believe that readers will type all that gibberish on to a computer they are joking, That is what Google is for.

I enjoyed his academic riff on his townsman Bongos Ikwue’s music, I did find the prose sometimes stodgy – in an amusing way. Here, Patrick Obahiagbon would have been proud of him, Hear Ochonu:

 The philosophical implication of Bongos’s music is that universal values are not independent of their constitutive elements; they are instead coextensive with their divergent parts. They are empowered and substantiated by the material and abstract worlds of disparate people living in localized, sometimes remote, milieus in different corners of the world. Idomaland is one such constituent of the universal. Its quotidian realities, cosmological landscape, and incantatory messages mirror and feed into the universal axioms that we take for granted in speech and gestures, and that some of us adopt as moral instructions . Not only are universal concepts minted in European linguistic systems analogous to similar concepts in the worlds of the Idoma and other non-hegemonic cultural formations; they sometimes derive their credibility and persuasive appeal from the fact that they are ultimately rooted in the material and symbolic inventions and adaptations of peoples— like the Idoma— who are often theorized as peripheries of the world.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 1613-1619). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

That part taken from the essay, Bongos Ikwue and Idoma Cultural Cosmopolitanism reads like part of an obtuse PhD thesis. If you understood all that, you are ready to take the SAT aptitude test. My son is studying for the test. He should read the book. His world-view will expand, yeye American, and he will ace the SAT reading and writing sections, LOL!

I kept dreaming: What would a really good digital book look like? We could start with Africa in Fragments and convert it to a real book, complete with links, forums and pictures. I would pay a mint to get into Ochonu’s head that way. Yes. Imagine, back and forth dialogue, multi-layered, multi-dimensional – the emerging form of literature in the 21st century. Death to the sage-on-the-stage tyranny, welcome to the guide-by-the-side paradigm. The book makes frequent, veiled references to the richness of discourse in  the USA Africa Dialogue online forum and unwittingly makes the most eloquent demonstration of the failure of the book as a medium to replicate the joys of digital media. Again, the book was written for a digital audience, and struggles with long explanations where a hot link would explain. Resources to  What is the Marshall Plan? and Tony Blair’s debt cancellation plan should have been hot links on kindle. They are not. That is the fastest way to lose an audience. In any case, to really get into Ochonu’s fecund mind, go online, Google him and feast – for free. But first you must buy this book.

The good news is that the structural transformations going on in the world, thanks to the Internet and allied technologies are very much on Ochonu’s mind and he is at his most thoughtful when he muses on them as these quotes show:

 The second potential catalyst for Africa’s development in the twenty-first century turns on the degree to which the continent’s leaders harness and channel into productive endeavors the ideas, peoples, goods, intellectual capital, and technologies moving in and out of Africa. This effort to take advantage of new ideas and mediums to rebuild, reclaim, and revitalize Africa is as much an intellectual process as it is a political project. As thinkers on Africa’s fate and future, African intellectuals must accept that certain aspects of their analytical toolkit are now simply outmoded, rooted as they are in struggles and constructs that were relevant to sociopolitical moments that have expired. For instance, the old utopian pan-Africanist vision that sought to dissolve rather than understand intra-African difference is no longer tenable. Without explicitly intending it, some of these outmoded constructs shut off discussions on communal fissures, contentious relations between contiguous African peoples, internal hegemonies of class, race, and ethnic privilege, and the ugly underbellies of a frayed Afro– Arab relationship.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 4490-4497). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Furthermore, as the spaces for discussing, brainstorming, and troubleshooting on Africa’s slate of challenges increasingly take on informal characteristics with the popularity of social media and others organs of democratized punditry, African leaders and intellectuals have to engage with nontraditional African discursive communities nurtured on informal technologies of expression and problem solving. All of this throws up larger, more consequential questions. How can African leaders and intellectuals reckon with increasingly mobile African bodies, ideas, and objects? How can they keep up with the narratives that are animating the lives of African communities in fixed, situated locales and in shifty information landscapes such as Internet forums and social networks? How do we write African stories that are proliferating in cyberspaces into our rendering of African realities, into our descriptions of African ways of seeing and structuring the world, and, ultimately, into our prescriptions for an African renaissance? Africa’s future depends on the extent to which these ideational, human, and technological flows between Africa and the world and within Africa intersect to create new economic, political, and intellectual paradigms. The first imperative is a basic existential one of remaking the territorial, constitutional, and political contours of postcolonial African nation-states in the diverse, complex images of their constituents.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 4483-4516). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

These are profound observations that should breathe beyond Ochonu’s book; they should be enough for a week-long conference, not a book. I salute Professor Moses Ochonu for engaging me with his thoughts in his insightful book. Go get your own copy, LOL!

Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc.: Of moral absolutism and fallen gods

foreign godsIf I had words, I would tell you stories that would make the wind weep.

         – Foreign Gods, Inc. Okey Ndibe

There is a particularly farcical, definitely quixotic misadventure that Professor Wole Soyinka narrates in his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. In  the late seventies, convinced that the Ori Olokun, a bronze artifact needed to be rescued from Brazil and returned home to Nigeria, Soyinka set about the “rescue” with hilarious results. He goes to Brazil and manages to bring home what turns out to be a fake, clay replica of the real deal. The real Ori Olokun was cooling its heels, under lock and key, in an air-conditioned museum in London. The farce is entertainingly re-narrated by Matt Steinglass in this brutal but entertaining review of Soyinka’s memoir.

Foreign Gods, Inc., Okey Ndibe’s new thriller of a fiction relives the farce in reverse. This time, Ike Uzondu, the protagonist, a highly educated Nigerian immigrant living a life he detests as a near-bankrupt, somewhat alcoholic cab driver in New York decides to go to his ancestral home in Nigeria, steal the totem of the god Ngene, “that ancient god of war named after a moody mud-colored river” and return to America in triumph where presumably Mark Gruels an art dealer would willingly pay a huge sum of money for it.  Things do not end well, but you will have to read the book, you will enjoy this well-paced thriller. It is good writing and anyone that has followed Ndibe will not be disappointed. In Foreign Gods, Inc. Ndibe proves to be a master story-teller. Good for him. On the Internet, and everywhere the written word resides, Ndibe rules the waves of Nigerian social commentary. A superb writer with a keen social conscience, his scathing essays drive Nigeria’s thieving ruling class up the walls of their stolen mansions. Whenever he visits Nigeria, it is unusual that he is not accosted by the goons of  the ruling class du jour. Few know however that Ndibe is also a fiction writer who has one novel, Arrows of Rain under his belt. You should read Foreign Gods, Inc.; it is an important, engaging, and fun addition to literature.

There are many reasons to like Foreign Gods, Inc. From the first page, Ndibe employs many literary tricks to hold the reader’s fickle attention to the end. A great first chapter sprints confidently into the second and so on to create a well-paced book that managed to keep my attention away from the neediness of social media. Ndibe has a fine mind, and a social conscience; from Babylon to Africa, Ndibe’s voice rises to a roar of rage at his ancestors’ condition. Ndibe is Achebe’s Obierika, endlessly thinking about these things, he interrogates both the material and the spiritual, what some might call superstition. And he does it with the grace of someone imbued with enough self-confidence to defend his ancestors’ dignity and eroding way of life. Foreign Gods, Inc. functions as social commentary, and examines, in a counter-intuitive way, the role of the African intellectual in the mess that is today’s Africa. Think about it, Soyinka wanted to return the Ori Olokun from its air-conditioned vault to a life of certain destitution where museums can be filthy, empty rooms attended to by termites; Ike wanted to return home to steal an artifact and sell to the white man. To hell with moral absolutism. Man must wack. The farce lives.

For Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc., the subtext is greed, we are selling our gods, no, we have sold our gods. His rage is coolly turned on Nigeria. We see a Nigeria ravaged by rank consumerism and organized religion, especially the new Christianity of “prosperity” churches. Her people, poor and rich, are thus united by a crushing poverty – of spirit and ideas (see “healing mystery lake video”). Ndibe weeps over a dying world and seems helpless as alien gods and thieving pastors rifle through the remains of a yard sale from hell. The new religion teaches us to think only in black and white, light and darkness. Ndibe chronicles the devastation. The pastor is not a man of God but a man of fraud. 419 pastors have infected Nigeria. His analysis of the devastation wreaked on Nigeria by the new Christianity is worth the price of the book. He also riffs on the Babylon that is the protagonist’s America. Culture shocks peek out of the civil, unctuous airs of Manhattan. The high rises bow to greed. This is also a story about identity and belonging, a novel about our America, their America. “And then there was Derek Jeter pitching some credit card. Ike had dozed off. He startled awake as a sports reporter screeched about the Yankees’ tie-breaking home run in the second game of a split doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.” (Kindle Locations 263-264). Ndibe knows his America.

Foreign Gods, Inc. is about a duel between Africa (Ike Uzondu) and the West (Mark Gruels). The Vampire strike the Empire. Or not. Numerous confrontations in the book heightened a luscious, ever present tension. All through the myriad drama, the book manages not to be drowned by the prattle of too many characters. Also, Ndibe captures, perhaps unwittingly the trademark superciliousness of the self-absorbed African writer bereft of a moral filter. He addresses many conventional issues that preoccupy African writers; the indignity of destitution, corruption, misogyny, women and children as chattel, the ravages of drug trafficking, patriarchy, capitalism, consumerism, the banality of our dreams, etc. Still, for the most part, funny, well-crafted lines jostle with important history. He chronicles with a war-weary eye the corruption in the land. My favorite lines advertise the gentrification going on in Nigeria’s rural areas: “The house behind seemed to stand on heels and peer into his mother’s backyard. Zinc-roofed concrete houses stood where mud houses used to be. Several buildings sported satellite dishes or television antennas.” (Kindle Locations 1238-1239). Nice.

Yes, Ndibe pens beautiful prose; he writes memorable lines like this: “The last scene he remembered was the clarity of the dawn sky in Amsterdam, a wide blue dome with no cloud puffs in sight. As the plane ascended, he looked out the window at the immensity of the sky. Then, casting his eyes down, he saw the vast mat of the landscape, the streets of Amsterdam marked off by geometric patterns amid marshes and expanses of green. Seen from the heights, the rugged beauty of the unfurled scene seemed unbearable, and he shut his eyes.” (Kindle Locations 1005-1008) Nice.

The book is a touching tale told with uncommon dignity, coolly narrated with a matter-of-fact but engaging cadence. Ndibe writes about an era in America when folks still walked into a travel agency and bought an air ticket, a time of emails and whatnot. Ndibe knows America with all its grittiness. The dialogue is great, you want to eavesdrop on a deadly serious account of a journey that is gripping in parts. Even though, the trademark superciliousness of the African writer towards West colors the book, however this time it is turned inwards also. We are making progress.

okeygoodIt would be interesting to study Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc. side by side with Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and reconcile their perspectives on race, America and relationships. The books do complement each other in the interesting conversations on African-American and African relationships. The marriage of convenience (for the coveted green card) between Ike and Bernita, the African American was the War of the Roses with lots of sex and drinking in the numerous intermissions. Like Americanah, Foreign Gods, Inc. is about class; touching is the class difference between Ike and Bernita, the marriage a perverse symbiotic relationship, each in the marriage for different reasons. Like Americanah, Foreign Gods, Inc. also examines the tensions between Nigerians in the Diaspora and Nigerians at home. To Ndibe’s credit, he does spare the reader another conversation on the politics of hair.

Ike’s world is grim and filled with the grit of despair, of “creditors… disconcerting mail: late-payment reminders, disconnection warnings, cancellation threats, repossession notices, eviction slips… an ever-present frowsy smell… a commingling of spilled liquor, urine, cigarette smoke, perfumes, and the rich, leafy scent of marijuana.” (Kindle Locations 577-585).  You can smell America.  You can also smell the eaves of Ndibe’s earth, “…memories of the nights during childhood when he could not sleep unless cuddled up against her body, which reeked of smoky wood, warm like sun-baked clay.” (Kindle Locations 662-663). Anxieties, identities, issues clashing in powerful paragraphs. Ike is living a life of seedy desperation, on the edge of a capitalist nightmare, sourcing for funds as hustlers would say in Nigeria, feeding twin monsters, American style capitalism, and that Nigerian scourge called the extended family system. Like Obi in No Longer at Ease, the end will be inglorious.

adichieAmericanah

Foreign Gods, Inc. is not a perfect book, of course, says the cliché. The editing is not the best. Ndibe is a master of words, however, in a few places, the editing clamps restraints on him, it is as if he is communicating in a different voice, you can barely recognize him. Thanks to the editing, with Nigerian words much is lost in translation. We need indigenous Nigerian editors in these Western publishing houses, they don’t quite get us. It can be irritating; Nigerian terms are italicized and eroticized, it is a wonder there is no glossary explaining Kalu Mazi.

Foreign Gods Inc. is burdened by a structural flaw; there is a confused timeline of events. In one instance, in Ike’s village, a group is watching a 1991 game NBA championship game between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. It seems unlikely that even in the remotest of Nigerian villages, this would be happening in 2006. One can only surmise that the manuscript was first conceived in the nineties, with the plots and characters and ambience evolving to meet a fast changing world (emails, cell phones etc.).  In another example, the pastor rides around in a Peugeot 504. In the late 2000’s it seems unlikely for a prosperity pastor to own that model, he would have had to search far and wide to locate one. Attempts to make the story more contemporary are thus subverted and ambushed by traces of (ancient) history. The world is moving too fast for our writers, it is not their fault. Books are struggling with the interactive and addictive nature of social media. And losing. A book is so 20th century: You cannot swipe, LOL, LIKE, CLICK, talk to a book. A book knows it all. A book lectures. Like a 20th century headmaster. In the 21st century, the book is a dying sage on the stage. Long live the Internet.

Finally, Ndibe will have to contend with many readers who will undoubtedly ask legitimate questions about the heavy presence of Chinua Achebe’s ghost between the sheets of Foreign Gods, Inc. Ndibe’s unpretentious prose highlights effectively, in my view, the utter banality of life for many immigrants in the West. But then there are transitions in the prose that offer strong whiffs of Achebe’s many works of fiction:

“Look at this,” his uncle had said, pulling up his undershirt to expose a gash in his belly. Osuakwu paused, running his fingers along the singed, darkened scar. “First, the white man forced me to go to Burma to fight in a war that had nothing to do with me. It was a quarrel between different white brothers. And then the white man gave me this as payment.” (Kindle Locations 1000-1003)

achebeChapter 10 has strong echoes of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Scholars may have a field day interpreting this. Again, the language reminds one eerily of Achebe. Characters like Unoka, Uchendu, Okonkwo, Obierika, etc. seem to make loud cameo appearances in the book’s characters. There is even an interpreter that is ridiculed by “a proud loquacious oaf.” Chapter 14 suffers immensely from Achebe’s spirit, it is as if one is reading passages knighted by a composite influence of Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, and A Man of the People;  here, Ndibe is Achebe with a cell phone. Like Achebe’s books, here, there is a surplus of parables and tales. It is as if you are reading Achebe, so many parallels. Osuakwu is Ike’s uncle. Uchendu was Okonkwo’s uncle. The beauty of spirituality of the Igbo is captured, but one hears Arrow of God. In the conversation between Ike and Big Ed, the Jamaican immigrant, one is reminded of Uchendu’s admonition of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart

What do I think? Foreign Gods, Inc. is a great outing that will be remembered and defined by its relationship with virtually all of Chinua Achebe’s works of fiction, and not always in a good way. Devotees of Achebe will see his spirit everywhere. Ndibe made a strategic decision, it seems, some would say, a strategic mistake to be heavily influenced by Achebe’s works. Achebe is everywhere, delete the cellphones and the emails and you almost find yourself chanting, “Kotma of the ashy buttocks.” And so, Foreign Gods, Inc. will be important for at least one reason that Ndibe probably never envisioned, its relationship with Achebe’s works. Scholars will spend countless hours debating at what point an influence gets acknowledged. There is no science to this; it is a matter of personal judgment. It should have been a simple fix, Ndibe should have openly acknowledged Achebe’s influence in the book and given him some credit – upfront. Achebe does get a nod in the “acknowledgments” section but only in a vague, “he was my mentor, and I love him so, sense.” An upfront acknowledgment would have been sufficient for me. Still it did not rob me of the fun of reading about “buttocks” in Foreign Gods Inc. and chuckling about the court messengers in Things Fall Apart being ridiculed by the prisoners:

 “Kotma of the ash buttocks,

He is fit to be a slave.

The white man has no sense,

He is fit to be a slave.”

Achebe, Chinua (2010-10-06). Things Fall Apart: (Kindle Locations 1903-1904).

I have said my own.