In the name of our sisters: Everything Good Will Come

Reproduced for archival purposes. First published in 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Writers, Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa

First published January 5, 2010

Forgetting is the final instrument of genocide. To witness genocide is to feel not only the chill of your own mortality, but the degradation of all humanity… even the most brilliant photography cannot capture the landscape of genocide.

 –       Simon Norfolk

The writers Okey Ndibe and Chenjerai Hove are two of Africa’s finest thinker-writers. They are awesome wordsmiths, word cannon balls boom fiercely out of their fecund minds pulverizing their targets with uncanny accuracy. They write with an uncommon sensitivity to the issues that Africa faces. This they do with respect and compassion and one is taken by the honesty and industry that they bring to their craft. They have just co-edited a slim volume of essays, Writers, Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa, published by Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd. It is a largely academic but highly accessible treasure trove of reflections on war by an army of mostly African writers who have been affected by Africa’s myriad wars and genocides. In about 200 pages and sixteen chapters (including the introduction), the reader comes face to face with the anxieties, nightmares and dreams of sixteen diverse and eclectic artists. These are issues covering past and present wars all over Africa; Biafra, Zimbabwe, the hell delta of Nigeria, Darfur, the Congo, South Africa, etc. Kudos to Ndibe and Hove for ensuring that these writers are a judicious mix of the known and unknown. The resulting essays are refreshing and filled with uncommon candor. The references alone are invaluable. I wrote down passages in the book that spoke to me and then I walked among the words, talking to them. I was shaken to my soul’s roots. Even the cover is evocative in what it does not say. It is an image of beautiful children born into wars they did not ask for. There are all these children mugging for the camera with Africa and decay as a surreal backdrop.

As an aside, this compilation of essays came out of a workshop attended by the departed poet-warrior Dennis Brutus. In the book, Ndibe and Hove recall his spirit with eerie nostalgia: “Dennis Brutus, the South African poet whose back bears the scar of an apartheid bullet, lent a measure of revolutionary gravitas and hard-earned moral capital to the workshop. When Brutus spoke or read his poems, his voice, though slightly enfeebled by age, still rang out with stunning range and power.” (p11)

This book is several conversations burning at once. The writer Yvonne A. Owuor starts the conversations rolling in a piece she admits is a rant. It is a rant pregnant with profound gems. She questions why the West glorifies its own wars with stories of valor and views Africa’s wars as savage and barbaric, pointing out that there have been equally gory examples to draw from in the West Again, Chinua Achebe, in his seminal volume of essays Home and Exile, reminds us of the proverb: “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.” I agree. Africans must tell their own stories or risk the total annihilation of their humanity by the other. We should write about our own humanity, for war is about the sorting of individuals into bins of identity and differences and the hunting down of those anxieties that lurk behind ancestral masks.

This book is a defiant ode to the power of the word and Hove captures it neatly: “Those years of war… gave me scars and smiles. Scars because real bullets pierced and tore apart the bodies of real women, children and men. Smiles, for, in the midst of death and pain, I saw children, women and men who proudly showed human resilience even in the face of death as they fought for the restoration of their dignity.” (p38)

The last chapter, Reflections on Inyenzi is an evocative essay bearing a conversation between the writers Karin Samuel and Andrew Brown. Brown wrote the book Inyenzi: A Story of Love and Genocide based on the Rwandan genocide. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It brings to great closure several issues engaged by the other writers in the book. In simple, almost clinical prose that flogs the reader’s conscience wide awake, the writers weave fascinating images of war and one is reminded of the starkness of images of apartheid’s war housed in South Africa’s Hector Pieterson museum.

This is a slim book bearing weighty reflections on conventional wars in Africa. Wars still rage on in Africa, most of them wreaking havoc below the radar of our uncritical eyes. Every day alien religions wake Africa up and rape her with impunity and send her to bed sobbing inconsolably. Capitalism marches through Africa unchallenged reducing her millions of victims to needy supplicants to the God of more and more. We should reflect on why Africa is in this condition. The book does not. It is not a criticism; a book can only do so much. Africa is enduring many wars and while this book focuses on conventional wars, I propose that today’s most devastating wars are the unconventional. If we don’t focus on those we may be writing our way to irrelevance. Why is the world indifferent to the travails of Africa?

In the book, Lauryn Arnott’s drawings are harrowing in their detail and they nicely complement the writing. But it is not enough. In the age of the Internet, the book is dying a long slow death and it is no longer a robust medium for expressing the horrors of war or the joys of triumph over adversity. I dream of creating a virtual museum dedicated to Africa’s suffering – a total convergence of all media and all voices singing with one earth-shaking voice of the horrors that we have seen and heard. And the griots Ndibe and Hove would be the leaders of that mother of all projects.

Let’s accept some responsibility. Owuor makes this profound observation: “This war, this violence is ours. Ours is the hateful thing – a roaming stain that prowls through the society and sows seeds of chaos – that thing that appalls our within-ness. And horrifies us with the blood it wastes.” (p21) However the book is virtually silent on the crucial question: Why are things the way they are in Africa? There are many questions folded into that question. What is it with Africa and conflict? Why are we constantly forced to question and justify our humanity? What is the role of the writer in shaping events in today’s Africa? Why do some of our writers turn Goebbels on the people? What is the best medium for forcing the people to focus brightly on the fires that burn so fiercely all around Africa? Is this generation of African writers self-absorbed and narcissistic and why?  Has the African writer deserted the role of the writer as the land’s conscience, priest and town-crier? We must seek answers to the why even though it might frighten us.

The Internet, that new world that holds the promise of liberation from hell on earth, is right now busily retrieving Africa’s brightest and best minds from Africa and dumping them in Europe and America.  Virtually all of Africa’s best thinkers are writing about Africa from the outside looking in. Thanks to technology, sadly, this exodus includes those writers who physically live in Africa.

Hope Eghagha in his essay evokes the spirit of the poet-seer Christopher Okigbo using lines from Okigbo’s Hurrah for Thunder:

The smell of blood already floats in the lavender-mist of the afternoon
The death sentence lies in ambush along the corridors of power;
And a great fearful thing already tugs at the cables of the open air,
A nebula immense and immeasurable, a night of deep waters –
An iron dream unnamed and unprintable, a path of stone.

This poem was written four decades ago; one could argue that it seems prophetic today only because the situation in Nigeria is heading South fast and the future is certainly frightening. But then the question is why this constancy of turmoil. Okigbo would not know; he was murdered by Nigerian troops on Biafran soil in a war he did not ask for. This book is one more compelling proof that the sacrifices of Okigbo and other African thinkers hunted down and slaughtered for owning words have not been in vain. I salute Okey Ndibe and Chenjerai Hove.

African Roar 2011: African Writers Whimpering

Adunni, my iPad just bought me African Roar 2011, an anthology of stories written by fifteen African writers, and edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor Hartmann. I don’t think Adunni wasted our precious money but I expected more; I hope this is not my Christmas present.  Contrary to what the anthology implies, it is not exactly representative of African writing; the writers come from just five English speaking countries; seven are from Zimbabwe, four from Nigeria, two from South Africa, and one each from Ghana and Malawi. I loved the debut annual anthology last year and reviewed it here. Sadly this year’s collection is mostly a gaggle of safe stories celebrating the familiar, tried and tired. There is little attempt at experimentation and there’s neither range not depth in many of the stories. These are mostly political statements about certain miserable conditions, wrapped in the pretend-toga of short stories. They feature pedestrian prose and lack energy and passion. Editing issues hint at a hurried publication.

Many of the stories are feverish experiments in self-absorption and narcissism. Memory Chirere’s tribute to the late writer Stanley Ruzvidzo Mupfudza is self-serving – and poorly written. Blessed silence would have been a more fitting tribute. Stories like the late Mupfudza’s Witch’s Brew are painstakingly devoted to decay, disease and conflict. Noviolet Bulawayo’s open lines in her story Main are lovely prose-poetry: “Main.   Main Street standing up straight and adjusting the rainbow-coloured wrap skirt that threatens to slide down her wide waist, black blood boiling in her veins. Bustling throbbing writhing street. Everything moving: cars, voices, ambitions, money, dreams, feet, smoke. Just moving moving moving — like a wind.” Nice, but then Main dissolves into a pointless story about death, and filth. The good news is that the story is so short it should not be called a short story. Bulawayo’s considerable literary talents are gainfully deployed to relentlessly documenting despair and mediocrity. Zukiswa Wanner’s story, A Writer’s lot about the joys and perks of being a privileged African writer doted upon by the society and the West is a botched attempt at humor. Wanner should find her own voice. She will never be Binyavanga Wainaina.

Gloom and doom have become chic signature tunes for defining the African writer – and Africa. These self-perceptions are true and they deserve the world’s attention and opprobrium but they do not speak to the range of life’s experience in Africa. Instead they only reinforce the persistent negative image that the world seems to have of Africa. African writers may be courting disrespect with their glum self-absorption. Case in point: Jerry Guo of Newsweek once conducted a profoundly incoherent interview of Chinua Achebe (Chinua Achebe on Nigeria’s Future, Newsweek, July 5, 2010) in which he referred to Things Fall Apart, as a story about “a simple yam farmer in tribal Nigeria.”  In the 21st century Things Fall Apart is being described in such a hideous fashion. Anthologies like African Roar 2011 should improve upon the silence and raise the bar for the quality of discourse in the burdens of Africa’s stories.

It is not all dreary. Dango Mkandawire’s prose shines in The Times. Ivor Hartman’s story, Diner Ten about cockroaches is so charming it could serve as a public relations charm offensive for that most loathsome of creepy crawly pests. Hajira Amla’s story Longing for Home was quite entertaining, albeit slightly inchoate and improbable. Helon Habila handles the same subject masterfully in The UK Guardian (The Second Death of Martin Lango). Uche Peter Umez’s Lose Myself gamely  makes a short story out of a one-night stand somewhere in America. It is one of the best stories in the collection. It is mostly successful but obsessive thoughts of home make the protagonist – and the story impotent.

Why are virtually all these stories so mindlessly obsessed with Africa’s political and social issues? Are African writers under pressure to write the single story? Issues of identity are on my mind. I am thinking specifically of the African writer’s preoccupation with identity. It is possible that the label African writer is having the effect of defining and limiting the writer’s range. It is as if African writers have sealed themselves hermetically in this bubble where they  toil in a culture of despair, relentlessly beating the same ‘African” dead horse to death. The good news is that, thanks to many obscure writers (alas), the literature of our continent is alive and well in many places other than in anthologies. The reader is well advised to visit those places on the Internet where all the stories of Africa dance riotously and assure the world of her people’s place in this market called humanity. I have  previously shared my appreciation here and here and on Facebook and Twitter. And yes, this is a shameless plug, please join me on Facebook and on twitter (@ikhide).

Interestingly enough last year’s debut issue of African Roar had a helpful introductory essay that provided appropriate context and coherence to that year’s collection. This year’s edition could have used an introductory essay. As an aside, next year, the editors should strive to produce a more user-friendly Kindle edition. I had trouble navigating the collection. I did find the biographies of the writers in the collection more entertaining than several of the stories. I had more fun reading The Granta Book of the African Short Story published by Granta and edited by the Nigerian writer Helon Habila. As I shared here, I have issues with that collection, but you cannot quarrel with the quality of its presentation and the thoughtfulness that went into it. Habila’s introductory essay alone is worth the price of the book.

Wainaina recently ignited a firestorm with his statements about the West’s obsession with what African writers have to write about. The article and the podcast in which Wainaina held forth about this are here. Wainaina did say, “If you are to ask me what are the greatest issues in Africa, I would say it is that people love, people fuck, people kiss, people speak.” That may be true, but you wouldn’t know it from reading African Roar 2011 (and come to think of it, Habila’s recent collection of “African stories”). These writers are too busy solving Africa’s myriad issues to make wild lust-filled love. It would appear that only misery makes them roar.

African Roar 2011 is available on Amazon.

Related essays:

The three Rs: Reading, Reading and Reading January 23, 2011

Why Are We Not Reading Books? August 29, 2011

Who Speaks for Black Africa?

The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences May 28, 2011

The 2011 Caine Prize: How not to write about Africa May 24, 2011

Beyond the balance of the stories March 20, 2011

The writer, identity and purpose August 14, 2010

In search of the African writer January 24, 2010

Of African writers and their uncles February 6, 2011

 

Of Biafra, Roses, Bullets and Valium

The other day, Adunni my trusty iPad bought me Roses and Bullets, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s new book on the Nigerian civil war. I don’t know, iPads should not be this powerful; Adunni has unfettered access to my bank account and she is always buying me books off the Internet. I wish she would buy me books that engage and entertain me like a good bottle of cognac VSOP. I won’t lie, reading Adimora-Ezeigbo’s latest offering was pure torture. The book sent me to sleep each time I opened it on Adunni’s Kindle. I stopped reading it halfway; I won’t be back to it. Life is too short to be miserable.  I tried, I really did, but I could not get past the clinical aridity of this book. This is one deadly boring book. Reading it makes watching paint dry an exhilarating experience.

Why did I stop reading the book? Well, it reads like a neatly typed, fastidiously edited memorandum penned by a humorless civil servant who is used to writing government white papers for the Kremlin. It is relentlessly edited, stripped of every conceivable emotion, with every joy of reading wrung and bleached out of every word until the reader’s eyes beg for sleep – or death. This book should be an instrument of torture in police stations. The victim will confess to an imaginary crime just to be allowed to rest. I kept rubbing my eyes and falling asleep. All insomniacs should skip Valium and buy this book; they will be cured. This tome is borne on stilted clinical prose, a meandering tale that seems reluctant to make a point, any point.

Why was this book written? What new insights does it offer on the Nigerian civil war? How does this book improve upon the silence? Other than it is about the Nigerian civil war, I have no idea what the reader should take away from this book. The clinical antiseptic prose violently strips the novel of ambiance or atmosphere. I could not imagine Biafra; I could not imagine Nigeria, not with this book. Not even the mention of Kingsway Supermarket could drag me back to those years. Any writer worth his or her salt should be able to describe the unique smell of Kingsway and bring tears to the eyes of memory. The Nigerian civil war was a unique era, a sad time in our history that requires an expert hand to capture  the sights, smells, and songs of that horrid period.

This plodding overweight non-story suffers from a poor design, well, actually from no design; it does not lay the context for the story and anyone new to the horrors of Biafra is well advised to go elsewhere first. There is no over-arching vision, and the characters are so inchoate and forgettable, I cannot remember any of them, can’t tell them apart. And this brings me to my pet peeve. Adimora-Ezeigbo goes to great lengths to italicize and explain indigenous terms like ikpi nku, chinchin, ube, udara, etc, I imagine in a bid to reach and keep a wider audience beyond her clan. I have a huge problem with this habit among African writers. They all need a healthy dose of self-confidence. In their works they are always italicizing egusi and ugali. I say, tell your story; stop italicizing our way of life. Let the reader do the research. Besides that is what Google is for. I have never seen sauerkraut in italics.

The Nigerian Civil War is a hugely important topic and it is a crying shame that many Nigerians have no idea of the enormity of that horror that visited us.  A search on “Nigeria Biafra” on amazon.com yielded hundreds of hits. Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a good book for those who want to read everything about what Roses and Bullets is not about. I have a review of it here. There are many contentious issues that Adichie brings up – and there is no shortage of robust debate about them. That is what a book should do. Dan Obi Auduche also has a helpful bibliography of eighty books on the Biafran war here. Adichie’s book has a helpful reference list of thirty books. Where Awduche’s list is focused on books directly about the war, Adichie’s has a broader focus. Virtually all the books directly on the war on Adichie’s list are also on Awduche’s list. It would have been helpful to see the reference list Adimora-Ezeigbo drew upon for her research. My favorite essay on Biafra by the way is My Biafran Eyes by Okey Ndibe, that irrepressible owner of words. You may feast on it freely on Guernica here.

And oh, by the way, Roses and Bullets was published in Nigeria by Jalaa Writers Collective. Do not bother clicking on the link, the website of this publishing house has been suspended. Are we a serious people or what? And no, this is not a review, but a rant expressing my frustration that Adunni wasted my money on a dreadful book. There… I feel better. So tell me, I would dearly love to hear suggestions from my readers on useful resources on the Nigerian civil war. Do you have any? Why do you like it? Share…

Helon Habila and The Hunt for the African Short Story

Adunni my iPad just bought me an e-book, “The Granta Book of the African Short Story” published by Granta and edited by the Nigerian writer Helon Habila. The book’s “Introduction” written by Habila alone is worth the price of the book. Adunni is happy. I am happy. It is an engaging, cerebral, thoughtful and comprehensive treatise on the short story form as practiced by African writers. Habila starts out with this bold salvo: “I often attend lectures and conferences where some distinguished speaker will give a talk on African literature that, to my disappointment, if not surprise, begins and ends with Things Fall Apart, as if nothing has been written in Africa since 1958. In this collection, I want to bring things up to date and present my own generation, usually referred to as ‘the third generation of African writers’, who, until now, have rarely been anthologized. To put them in perspective, I have also selected a few influential and representative first- and second-generation writers to stand alongside their artistic descendants. My hope is to capture the range and complexity of African short fiction since independence, highlighting the dominant thematic and stylistic shifts over the decades.”

It is an ambitious statement pregnant with audacious claims. It is true that Achebe is revered worldwide to the point of undignified fawning. In September, this year, I attended the Garden City Literary Festival in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. I had a wonderful time. The theme was Politics and Literature. Chinua Achebe’s spirit was everywhere, his venerable face was piped in by video all the way from America and he gave a speech. We must have given every word a standing ovation. The son gave yet another speech on his behalf – flanked by a long row of old writers (of previous dispensations) waiting their turn at the high table to speechify. Young writers cooled their heels in the audience only to be dutifully trotted out for photo-ops. However, Achebe is not as over-exposed as the troika of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila and Binyavanga Wainaina. They are the ones called upon by the Western literary establishment each time something needs to be said about ‘African literature.” It seems the case these days that Westerners think that African literature begins and ends with this hugely talented trio, It is a problem. I also dispute the notion that African short stories of Habila’s generation are rarely anthologized; their stories fill anthologies, many of them poorly edited, alas.

The book brings to the fore the debate about who defines what is an African story. It is interesting; the contemporary writers in this collection are virtually all writers in the Diaspora and as Habila freely admits, influential in determining what is African literature. To the extent that there is practically no one writing from inside the continent, it is presumptuous to declare this collection representative of African short stories. Habila’s work is an important collection that documents the heavy, perhaps undue influence African writers in the Diaspora wield in shaping the face of the African story. This influence has been amplified by globalization, the digital age, and the near collapse of traditional publishing in Africa. If this trend is not arrested, we will be living witnesses to the distortion of the history and face of African literature by Western patrons with the unwitting cooperation of influential star writers like Habila. It does not have to be so.

In the essay, Habila coins an interesting term – “post-nationalist” to describe today’s African writers: “My use of the term ‘post-nationalist’ is aspirational. I see this new generation as having the best potential to liberate itself from the often predictable, almost obligatory obsession of the African writer with the nation and with national politics, an obsession that at times has been beneficial to African writing, but more often has been restrictive and confining to the African writer’s ambition.” Tom Begg writing here on September 16, 2011 in the Think Africa Press disagrees: “In spite of Habila’s bold words in the introduction, many of the stories in the collection are concerned with regional and national issues, looking to the continent’s blighted history or current social problems.” The book does feature several stories that have been previously published elsewhere by the contemporary writers; many readers will recognize the pieces from previous encounters. If I don’t read Adichie’s “The Arrangers of Marriage” again ever, I will be perfectly fine.

The collection pits new writers like Adichie and EC Osondu against writers of old like Camara Laye and Alex La Guma. Habila’s vision was to track the arc of African writing from the pre-colonial to the present. Habila provides a rationale for the theme and design of the anthology: “I eventually decided to order these stories generationally, starting with the youngest writer and ending with the oldest, the intention being to showcase the newest writing from the continent first, before moving back in time to show what came before that, as that is what these younger writers must have grown up reading.” I am not sure this was a successful experiment. It is impossible to tell when the new ends and the old begins. It would have been more useful to rank the stories according to when they were written to get a good sense of the trajectory and the times. To follow Habila’s logic, if the octogenarian Gabriel Okara writes a short story based on today’s Nigeria (he is still writing), his story would belong at the end of the book. That makes absolutely no sense. I would have partitioned the writing in sections by the era in which the stories were written.

The Nigerian writer Tolu Ogunlesi also reviewed the collection in the UK Independent here. Ogunlesi asks crucial questions about what our writers are preoccupied with and who determines what an African story is. Ogunlesi lists the themes in the collection as predictable staples of African stories: “Recurring themes include exile, return-from-exile…slum-dwelling, arranged marriages, and the antics of sexually exploitative tourists…” He reacts to Habila’s work with a gentle sigh: “Conspicuous by its absence in this collection is the internet. Not a single person is to be found Googling or sending emails. Mobile phones show up only a handful of times, although in the Africa of the 21st century, Russian Kalashnikovs have largely given way to Chinese mobile phones.” When I said the same thing here upon reading the offerings on the shortlist for the 2011 Caine Prize; many aggrieved writers and their friends threw pity parties in which my backside was the fillet mignon du jour. I simply said: “The stories are so ancient, it is a wonder they did not feature smoke signals and slide rules…there is not a single mention of the Internet and cell phones, not once. Outside of the destructive force of organized religion, wars and diseases, the Internet and cell phone technology are the most powerful forces in the ongoing restructuring of African communities.” To be fair to Habila, many new readers would enjoy and could use the exposure to writers of old like Camara Laye, Alex La Guma and the irreverent Dambudzo Marechera. Habila’s collection is eclectic in how he introduces the reader to older African literature. However, it is instructive that readers and reviewers are having difficulty telling contemporary works apart from those of the older writers. Again, the question: Do the contemporary writers featured in this anthology truly represent the depth and breath of African short story writing? Let me propose again that to the extent that they are used over and over again as yardsticks for what is African literature, the history and trajectory of African writing are being distorted by an influential but over-exposed few.

I do admire what institutions like Granta and the Caine Prize have done for African literature, in collaboration with many star African writers like Habila, Adichie and Binyavanga Wainaina. There is a tiny minority of influential writers out there (and Habila is one) who are in a position to determine the direction of African writing. They must be supported and encouraged – to do the right thing. The Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah has a useful review of the collection in ft.com here. She observes that with this collection Habila seems to have engineered a reunion of Caine Prize winners: “… almost half of the writers here (including Habila himself) have come to prominence either by winning or being shortlisted for the award… It is no coincidence that the Caine writers are among the best known from Africa. This raises the perennial question of the nature of African literary production that has preoccupied the continent’s critics and thinkers since the first African writers were published in the west.” Gappah is on to something here. Of the twelve Caine Prize winners since its inception in 2000, seven of them, two finalists and a Caine Prize judge are represented in this volume: Leila Aboulela (2000) Helon Habila (2001), Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Brian Chikwava (2004), Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008), EC Osondu (2009) Olufemi Terry (2010); Doreen Baingana (Caine finalist), Laila Lalami (Caine finalist); Aminatta Forna (Caine Prize judge). Then there is Adichie, Uwem Akpan, etc. They are all friends known to each other. Calling this a reunion is more generous than what comes to my mind – cronyism.

Habila is appreciative and respectful of the muscle of the Internet in shaping literary discourse: “With the coming of the Internet to many parts of urban Africa in the late 1990s, a new avenue for publishing was discovered and the African short story finally began to get its long-overdue moment of recognition. The traditional publishing landscape, with its excessive restrictions, was suddenly superseded. The Internet is today doing what the newspapers and magazines did to the development of the short story in Europe and America at the start of the industrial age.” I agree absolutely. Contrary to contemporary lamentations, the social media and the Internet are making compulsive readers out of consumers all over the world. Writers and traditional publishers should stop reacting to this phenomenon like oil on water. They should embrace this new democratization of our literature; we will all flourish materially and spiritually as a result. There are many talented new voices writing amazing stuff on the Internet and elsewhere; there should be a process for accessing, nurturing and collating their important works.

At the end of his essay, Habila muses: “… before settling on a particular story, I would ask myself a simple question: ten years from now, would this story illuminate the preoccupations and concerns, literary and social, of the times in which it was written?” Time will tell, but the reviewers seem eager to confine this volume to mulch, because in their view, Habila’s eloquent and bold vision does not match the product. We are making progress and Habila is part of that grand march to the light. Someday we will laugh at memories of times when Western benefactors enthralled by the notion that Africans can actually write pretty things reacted with the glee of scientists discovering that chimps can actually use twigs as implements – to scratch their backsides. The challenge is to force them to change the paradigm of patronage and stereotype – of paying African writers generously to say the same thing over and over again, even in the face of mounting evidence that things have changed. So… who tells our story? Africa is undergoing an exciting renaissance in the arts especially in literature. These exciting new writers are easy to find; just go on the Internet and you can feast on their magical words for free. Institutions like Granta, the Caine Prize and Western literary patrons should use their considerable resources to reach out to these emerging writers. They would be pleasantly surprised. In the meantime, the search for the elusive authentic African writer continues in full force. Habila reminds us of Dambudzo Marechera’s contempt for that elusive African animal: “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.”

Our World According to Binyavanga Wainaina

Book Review: One Day I Will Write About This Place. By Binyavanga Wainaina. Graywolf Press; 272 pages

Every African thinker should find a copy of Binyavanga Wainaina’s new book, One Day I Will Write about This Place and read it carefully from front to back. Scratch “African,” every thinker should read this enigmatic book by one of the most enigmatic thinkers I have never met. Wainaina entertains and educates with his brilliance and lunacy as displayed in the many exhilarating chapters of this unusual memoir. One is reminded repeatedly that there’s no fine line between brilliance and lunacy; Wainaina is a brilliant lunatic. Let me just say that he has written the memoir that many writers are too chicken to write. This memoir is a delightful and important coming of age book that describes Wainaina’s world (and our world) with riotous clarity and shimmering brilliance. Wainaina pulls no punches, he lays it all out there, self-absorbed warts and all. Indeed there are several issues in this book that would make for robust all-night drunken debates. It is a good thing. Who is Binyavanga Wainaina, you ask? It is now a cliché to say that in 2005 Wainaina wrote the half tongue-in-cheek, angry essay How to Write about Africa  – a seminal piece that confronted the complicated relationship between the West and what is or what should be African literature. In that essay he famously wrote this about the West’s expectations of an African story, “Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.”

The West and the African Writer: Wainaina’s new book robustly continues the conversation that he started with his essay in 2005. It is a long convoluted story though, the West and African literature. The relationship between African writers and the West has been complicated and immensely frustrating. The Western hand that gives to African writers is the same hand that holds its nose to Africa’s real and, some would say, imagined filth. It is well documented that the West has always been fascinated by the real and alleged mystery of Africa, that other planet. This fascination and the stories it has bred are documented in the travelogues, essays and novels of Western travelers and others like VS Naipaul and Dinesh D’Souza. Wainaina is following in the footsteps of Chinua Achebe who looked Joseph Conrad’s spirit in the eye and called him a thorough-going racist in the essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”  The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also lamented this phenomenon by deriding it in a 2009 TED speech, The Danger of the Single Story. And so there is a gathering body of work massed like furious clouds that question the intentions of Western writers and readers who appear to be stirred only by stereotypical stories of Africa, their war torn needy angry place of issues-laden starving peasants who do cute things.

Well, it is complicated. When one studies the works of contemporary African writers as measured against the works of those before them, there appears to be a wide gulf in terms of attitude and focus. Today, crumbling walls and globalization have ironically fueled a self-serving market of literature that mostly serves the West and the African writer, Africa and Africans be damned. The question that comes to mind is this: When did we stop telling our stories; and when did we start selling our stories to the other? Many contemporary writers including those who are crying foul at unflattering depictions of Africa and Africans by the West are just as complicit in the ongoing distortion of our history as I suggested in 2007 in the essay The Balance of our Stories.  That essay was largely influenced by my reading of contemporary writers and Chinua Achebe’s epic essay, Today, the Balance of Stories in his book Home and Exile. The new globalization seems to have brought the worst out of many of our contemporary traditional writers. I say “traditional” because the world still relies on their books as the sole yardstick for how our stories are told. It is true that the book is really the only benchmark we and the West use. But let me propose that there are great stories on the Internet written by new African writers that are being ignored because they do not breathe between book covers. These are awesome stories written by exciting thinkers who are not that needy, or under a certain pressure to produce tales rich with a single story. My point is that there is enough blame to go around. Our writers and thinkers must emulate the behavior that they seek in others. In an essay, In Search of the African Writer, I made the case that the search for the authentic African writer is on in full force – unfortunately by the wrong hunters.

He Who Pays the Piper The West does deserve credit for rescuing most of Africa’s gifted writers and artists from the despair, devastation and abuse that was previously their lot in Africa. We would not have a Nobel Laureate in Wole Soyinka today if he had been allowed to be broken by military goons. Achebe would be dead in record time if he stepped into Africa without the generous medical and material resources at his disposal in the West. There is a long list of African writers rescued like abused puppies by the West, and Wainaina is just one of them.  The plain truth is that Africa is witnessing a renaissance in literature and the arts thanks to the robust patronage of the West. All the prizes of stature are Western or funded by the West. They are prestigious prizes and highly sought after as they should be. However, there is the unfortunate perception, perhaps reality, that any African writer who wishes to have stature and prestige must be published in the West or win Western prizes and grants. It helps that the awards are meticulously organized and the publishing houses produce books of incredibly high quality no matter how mediocre the writer’s thoughts are. The patronage appears to come with a heavy price that Africa can ill afford to pay: Many writers appear to be writing to the test of the expectations of these prizes. I expressed my concerns in 2011 in two essays, The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write about Africa and The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences. There is a disturbing trend in African literature: Africa’s history and literature are being grossly distorted and unduly influenced by the self-serving narrative-for-rent hawked by a minority contingent of African writers. Using their access to good publishers, their mediocre thoughts hide behind pretty covers to assault Africa’s sensibilities. It sells. Wainaina’s book brings to full convergence the anxieties and tensions around the tortured relationship between the West and African writers. On the one hand, Wainaina acknowledges openly and graciously in that book that it was published thanks to generous funding from a long list of Western donors and corporations like the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, Target stores, Wells Fargo, the College of St Benedict’s. On the other hand, Wainaina is almost contemptuous of the interventions of the West in his fortunes; sometimes he gives the impression that he suffers from a culture of entitlement. Indeed if I was to offer any criticism of this lush narrative it is that Wainaina’s analysis conveniently excludes the role of the African writer in fomenting (for profit) the stereotyping of Africa in the enthusiastic hawking of the single story.

Here is Wainaina describing how he got invited to the Caine Prize ceremony in which he was the winner: “Dear Caine Prize Shortlisted Guy, called Binya… vanga. Do you want to come to England, and have dinner in the House of Lords, and do readings, and go to the Bodleian Library for a dinner of many courses, with wine, and all of London’s literati? At this dinner, you will find out if Baroness Somebody Important will give you fifteen thousand dollars in cash, and even if she doesn’t, you should come because being shortlisted and having dinner at the House of Lords and such is like a big deal, a really big deal. Will you come? Oh yes. I go. I win the Caine Prize, and cry, bad snotty tears, and come back with some money. A group of writers and I start a magazine, called Kwani?—which means so what?” (p. 189). Wainaina’s engagement with his patrons in this book comes across as rude, there is a cloying sense of entitlement; the smirk for once comes across as contrived, just like a few of the stories that have won the Caine prize. There have been seething ripples of discontent from the West. The book has justifiably received favorable reviews; however the Economist has led the pack in skewering Wainaina here with mean bear claws: “Too many African writers are co-opted by the American creative-writing scene only to be reduced by prevailing navel-gazing. Separately, much of the African writing culture that remains on the continent, including Kwani?, is propped up with cash from the Western donors that African writers purport to excoriate.”  The Economist is irritated by this uppity Kenyan who dares to bite the dainty fingers that he routinely feeds from whenever he is hungry. The piper seeks to dictate the tune. I expressed my sentiments regarding the Economist’s review of Wainaina’s memoir in a July 2011 essay, The Empire Talks Back.

The World According to Wainaina So what does Wainaina have to say in his memoir? It is typically Wainainaesque – an in-your-face take me as I wish to present me attitude. He is very open about his tortured relationship with the West. He takes their money – and he tortures them. There is a sense of entitlement here that on the surface is galling but then we must have a conversation about how and why things are the way they are. The Economist does not; the magazine shows neither empathy nor compassion.  We really need indigenous arts critics to give substance to our stories. The bottom line is that Wainaina has written an incredibly important book that is in danger of being consigned to the dung heap of books to be mulched simply because Western patrons do not like what he has to say. That is not right. We should also have a conversation about the evolving role of the book as a medium of expression in an increasingly digital world.  Wainaina makes it very clear at the beginning of the book that several portions of the book have been previously published including a travel story, the genesis of this book, published as far back as 1997. Several of the chapters are reformulated versions of pieces that have appeared in various analog and digital publications, some freely available on the Internet; a point which a number of critics have made about the book. Technology fans the sense of urgency for the thinker to share. Whereas a few decades ago the book was the sole medium for sharing and archival, today it is becoming more and more one for archival and not a very good one at that. The issues that Wainaina addresses in the book had a sense of immediacy and he was astute enough to use the Internet to disseminate his ideas. I have no problem with that. It helps that he was able to collate them together in a coherent (well, not always) and thrilling memoir. Saying that it is a collection of old stories misses the point of the struggle between the old and the new. This is not the same as repackaging and recycling material from previous books.

What is there to love about the book? There is brilliance and hyper-energy in abundance. There is darkness told with startling clarity and casualness. All of this is delivered with vivid, scintillating prose poetry. With an imagination on steroids, sometimes with a bit of magic realism thrown in, Wainaina weaves an affecting loving tale of a warm childhood in a middle class home in Africa. It is not contrived. It is very true. And it happened in Africa. What a concept. Wainaina’s world is always exploding into a thousand pieces and rearranging themselves again into new masquerade-forms. The book is filled with deep insights. Steeped in the oral tradition of his ancestors the book as a medium of expression struggled to contain his genius and his demons. This memoir showcases a mighty dream smashed in the sun into a thousand nightmare-pieces; your mama’s favorite china broken by your fumbling hands. Except that there is a higher clown in charge of the drunken tremor of your hands. For young Wainaina the world is a dazzling dizzy delightful frustrating puzzle. He pulls few punches. If he wants to masturbate, he says so, if he wants to shit, he says so. He doesn’t sugar coat it with over editing. This is a story told with a fierce muscular, feverish, almost malarial urgency. You must read this book, it is hard to explain.

Anxieties, Rage and the Mimicry The book holds loosely connected stories, but it works; it is like flipping furiously through a dark mind of many issues. Wainaina has class issues and he is haunted by his academic performance. Wainaina is an outlier; Africa does not support outliers. He exposes the mimicry from hell that Africa has become; everything is measured against a white Western standard. He lets it all hang out – all his issues.  He hints at significant health issues that were perhaps compounded by a hard drinking hard charging life. It is also a conversation about the notion of exile in the age of Facebook. There is delightful nonsense about marbles, almost childlike in its brilliance: “The world you see undulates with many parallel troughs—a million mental alleys. Every new day, you throw your marbles out of your mind and let your feet and arms and shoulders follow, and soon some marbles nestle loudly into the grooves and run along with authority and precision, directed by you, with increasing boldness. Each marble is a whole little round version of you. Like the suns.”(p 10) In turns hilarious and tragic, Wainaina charts the confusion-babel of a million clashing cultures, “You will all sit stunned and watch as your nation—which has broadband and a well-ironed army and a brand-new private school that looks exactly like Hogwarts castle in Harry Potter—is taken over by young men with sharpened machetes and poisoned bows and arrows. As you sit in your living rooms, they will take over your main highway, pull people out of cars and cut their heads off. In Nairobi, they will lift up your railway, the original spine, and start to dismantle it.” (p 245)

Wainaina’s book reminds me of a youth and childhood spent reading voraciously. You applaud when you read stuff like this: “The wind swoops down, God breathes, and across the lake a million flamingos rise, the edges of Lake Nakuru lift, like pink skirts swollen by petticoats, now showing bits of blue panties, and God gasps, the skirts blow higher, the whole lake is blue and the sky is full of circling flamingos.” (p 30) Wainaina is most adorable as a twelve-year old approaching teenage hood looking for other boys all over the world in books. It is perhaps a good thing that the military still kept the Internet a dark spirit from Wainaina; we would have lost him. He is all over the place physically and many times he forgets where he is as he is texting the world manically. This globalization will bring out the beast in us, apologies Fela. Sometimes he comes across as a black expatriate among the African countries he visits (thanks to Western grants!). He is fascinated by the contents of an open-air bra stall and he goes haywire ruminating on the various types – and uses of bras. It is amusing, the amount of energy he expends on this. Wainaina shows us how the savagery of destitution diminishes all of humanity – one poor person at a time. “But the money ran out, and only the first phase of the school was completed. When it rains we are overwhelmed with mud. Our toilets block and spill over every week. The showers have collapsed. There are strange animals breeding in unfinished dorms. Many classrooms have no windows.”  (p. 80).  In narrating the near nightmare that was his youth, Wainaina stubbornly tells his story. This is an angry book, delicious angry, a most unusual book, one that gives the middle finger to the tyranny of convention. No wonder the owners of orthodoxy are royally teed. It is touching, how he documents his otherness, the uniqueness that others judge as frailties. He has a gift for seeing profundity in the banal. He has been to magical strange places where the skies rain baby pink flamingos. This is who we are. Live with it, world. His descriptions of how systems, structures, cultures decay in Kenya are exquisite. It is a world where children of the dispossessed become nannies to the children of the haves. It is a war out there- for children. Servants make love and live in rooms that were once stables for horses. This is not who we once were. Listening to him, colonialism destroyed Kenya pretty much – and all of Black Africa. We should be angry, the book howls. You read Wainaina’s book and you want to wrap your arm around him and go WTF happened to you, man?

Cynicism and exile and loss In Wainaina’s world, caricatures are in abundance, they go well with the vat of cynicism about the human condition. Racism is just one of many strands of prejudice, bigotry and plain hate that the book unravels; there is also the locust invasion of the new church and the new music. He leads us by the hand to be living witnesses to the yearning for an imagined desired humanity. It is comical and tragic in its “we eat ice cream” mimicry: “You would not believe that not five hundred meters from here are roads and shops, and skyscrapers and cool restaurants that are playing the music of noiseless elevators, and serving the food of quiet electric mixers and plastic fridge containers. Burgers and Coke. Pizza.” (p 77) Wainaina’s memoir is for me the most contemporary analysis of the notion – and reality of exile. Wainaina pulls this off brilliantly even though he mentions the word exile only three times in the book, and not in reference to his own condition. Kenya and America are two main characters in the book, with Africa in the background, breathing colorful societies, people and issues. In the process Wainaina offers one of the best descriptions of Lagos I have ever read: “We drive into Lagos Island. And the city changes: thirty-story warrens, and caves, and leaning, cramped buildings clawing for space, and everywhere people: crisp and ironed in tailored clothes in all colors all speeding toward the stationary bicycle future… you can see them, like weaver birds, goods laid up below the bridge, climbing up. I am waiting to see somebody claw up the side of the expressway, shouting a sales pitch jubilantly, arm raised high and laughing as blood drips down his nails.” (p. 203) Wainaina’s book makes the poignant point that exile is a spiritual thing; the absence of walls does not make it go away. Brilliant.

Wainaina’s cynical eyes sometimes train on Africa with devastating accuracy. Fascinating is the cynicism, the superciliousness, and sometimes the sense of entitlement. Why is this so? A snarling parochialism overcomes him towards the end of the book. Kenya is on his mind a lot. Kenya never leaves him even though it is clear he has left Kenya. Desiccated opinions are let out to dry in the halls of mean opinions in the hopeless hope that they will become fresh again. The new exile does that to you. It is not a perfect book. For one thing, the editing was not the greatest and I found the research sloppy.  In truth, the poor editing makes it an uneven book in quality. Because Wainaina does not provide sources for his analyses, some of the stories have the feel of opinionated anecdotes. He should have provided the sources for his research. Opinions and observations, virtually all cynical become substitutes for substantive informative analysis. To be fair, Wainaina’s attitude as overbearing as it is sometimes, provides ample room for debate, unfortunately mostly the bar room type that ends in brawls, broken bottles, broken heads and broken egos. Wainaina’s cynical eye is on overdrive and towards the end of the book it gets old. Wainaina is not the same person that started the book. In adulthood he becomes jaded and angry. He looks at Africa no longer with childlike wonder and joy but with despair. He immerses himself in a culture of despair from which he never returns. But then for many of us Africans caught in the new dispensation, Wainaina is us. We recoil only because the ugliness we see in the mirror is us. I salute Wainaina for jamming his mirror to my narcissistic face. I did not like everything I saw, but I needed to see it. The Economist is right on one point: We need to be also proactive and prospective, not merely wallow in the despair of our condition. In the end however, we must ask ourselves the questions: So what? What does this all mean? What next? It is not enough to describe what is, we must vision a desired state and work actively towards actualizing it. We seem to be long on prose and poetry and assigning blame to the other. We are woefully short on accepting any responsibility for our own glaring shortcomings. That is the real tragedy of our condition as Africans. For too long it has been chic to neglect our issues and engage the West from a position of profound weakness. Fine prose never won battles, especially when the war is unnecessary. We should stop writing about this place called Africa and do something about her mess. For once.

Related referenced links

Binyavanga Wainaina: How to Write about Africa

Chinua Achebe: An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

Chimamanda Adichie 2009 TED speech: The danger of the single story.

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: The Balance of our Stories.

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: In Search of the African Writer

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write about Africa

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences.

The Economist: Memoir of Kenya: Look ahead, not back. Binyavanga Wainaina remembers

Ikhide R. Ikheloa: The Empire Talks Back.