There are many reasons to read Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. It is a thoughtful, gentle, dignified and deeply insightful work with pretty, no, elegant prose thrown in for good measure. The beauty and depth of the prose alone are enough motivation to read this book. This is not your traditional fare from the dusty shelves of orthodox African literature, this is good stuff, recommended reading, not only for individual readers, but for classrooms where these kinds of things are taught. This is how to write. Yes, the first thing the reader notices about the book is its quality. There is quality everywhere you look; in the production, in the prose, and in the depth of the content. All of this is wrapped in sublime elegance. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun hearkens to a time when African writers were not so consumed by superciliousness, a time when the dialogue was respectful and deeply insightful, a time when African characters were not Stepin Fetchit stick figures mumbling in the dark, caricatures hastily erected by African writers for the poverty porn single story that sells in the West. Indeed the book says we are the sum of our experiences, life is complicated and identity is what you make of it. This reader was so taken by this slim volume (a little under 120 pages of dreamy pleasure) he read it twice. It is a slim volume but that is deceptive; there are so many layers to the story. Manyika is expertly coy and cunning in rousing the readers’ curiosity. Words expertly placed at literary attention make you reach for Google – and revel in enchanting worlds within worlds.
Manyika’s approach to writing this novella is unique and innovative. It is a narrative in the first person built around Dr. Morayo Da Silva, the main protagonist. The world is not what it seems, certainly not according to Dr. Morayo Da Silva. She is a retired professor of literature living a charming existence in beautiful San Francisco. At 75, retired and divorced, she is enjoying the winter of her life. The aging process with its associated medical, social and spiritual challenges inspires Da Silva to reflect on her life’s journey so far. The story is told with the aid of several other characters who as they weave in and out of her life help the reader through an engaging thread of conversations around several themes. This slim volume is is what Chinua Achebe would have called dry-meat-that-fills-the-mouth. Manyika introduces you to new knowledge, slyly, ever so slyly, she drops hints and you go looking for them, lovingly, many times using the works of writers, like the “love crumbs” in e.e. cummings’ erotic poem, i like my body when it is with your.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is a marked improvement over Manyika’s first novel In Dependence. Where In Dependence seems tentative and unsure of itself, this novella is a bundle of quiet self-assured confidence and eclecticism. Take the title, it is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s oddly eclectic and brilliant poem, Donkey On which, like the novella, ends on a hopeful, joyfully defiant note, giving a sweet middle finger to what passes for living. The book is about relationships and connections to hearts and spaces spanning decades and bleeding into the 21st century, with its promises and challenges. Globalization is not a cliché here, the call centers of Mumbai are a reality and a looming menace. In between the spaces of time, there are all these anxieties that the reader can relate to; sexuality, ethnic cleansing, feminism, and power struggles against patriarchy and class. The themes seem familiar but they come across as fresh. This is not the effete and tired faux narrative of the allegedly, dispossessed, Africa Rising, that reverse pity party of the African middle class taking selfies in front of mimic cafes and fast food restaurants in Lekki and Abuja. Kudos to Manyika; it takes quiet brilliance to start a conversation – for example, without once mentioning the word feminism and Manyika pulls it off mostly. In this book, the reader listens to the voice of a mature sage, and the mind is soaked in the rich perks of age. It bears repeating: Manyika’s novella is gentle and respectful, it is not the caricature that passes for life in many works of African literature. It tackles the same subjects but one gets the sense that one is reading a complex narrative, not just a memoir wrapped in the pretend toga of fiction. The reader is immersed in a good conversation about identity and it is impossible not to think of some of the works of Taiye Selasi, Teju Cole, and to a lesser degree Chris Abani (in The Virgin of Flames), without the in-your face, edgy, and, sometimes contrived, deep drilling of subject matter. Like the works of these authors, it is brilliant still. Afropolitanism is not a word in the book, but it shines through and you want to have that conversation, instead of a yelling match. It’s all about identity: Dr. Da Silva is a Nigerian, but is she? Why? In the 21st century, she is the sum of all the places she’s been.
What is this book about? It is complicated: The book’s protagonist, seems to suffer from age-related memory loss, she is possibly a hoarder who hides money in strange places in her apartment. She does yoga and poses in tadasana, and is passionate about hot rods and pretty shoes. She is into Scuba diving, swimming, and tattoos. A near idyllic existence is broken literally by a fall. And things fall apart. But then she rebounds. She is an enigma, full of paradoxes, sophisticated but not too sophisticated to fall prey to Nigerian scam artists. Through her ordeal we engage love, betrayal, longing, heartbreak, exile and everything in between those anxieties. We read a lot through this eclectic woman; there is the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and we learn about writers like Nadine Gordimer José Saramago, Derek Walcott, Jean Rhys. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Earnest Gaines as well as C.L.R. James. The book invites you to read it carefully, there are intriguing riddles in many sentences, one learns a lot.What the protagonist remembers about Nigeria are not always pleasant but they are the reality. The reader learns about Boko Haram and sectarian violence at a time when the country is helpless at violence in Agatu and Enugu, fuming at the effete insolence and silence of those sworn to protect the people. There is a sad commentary on Nigerian societies’ attitude toward mental illness:
As a child I only remember one mad person – man or woman, I forget. Was it a bare-breasted woman who removed her wrappa to reveal a torn and dirty petticoat? Did she shriek and scratch her head? Or does this memory come from the book of my imagination? Or was it a man with thick, knotty, lice-infested hair? He was the only bearded man I saw in those days. I never dared to look too closely for fear that his curses might land on me. All the children knew that somewhere between this madman’s legs hung a large penis. Swinging. Menacingly. (P 45-46)
That penis. And Abulu the iconic mad man in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen comes to the mind, nothing changes:
He was robed from head to foot in filth. As he rose spryly to stand, some of the filth rose with him, while some was left in patches on the ground. He had a fresh scar on his face just below his chin, and his back was caked with a dripping mess from some dead mango in a state of putrefaction. His lips were dried and cracked. His hair was unkempt; it stretched like tendrils, giving him the appearance of a Rastafarian. His teeth, most of which were blackened as if singed, reminded me of fire-blowing gypsies and circus players who blew fire from their mouths and probably, I thought, burned their teeth. The man lay bare before our eyes, stark naked except for a shred of rag which hung loosely from his shoulder down to his waist; his pubic region was covered with a dense foliage of hair in the midst of which his veiny penis hung limply like trouser rope. His legs were bursting with taut varicose veins.
Obioma, Chigozie (2015-04-14). The Fishermen: A Novel (pp. 80-81). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
Nothing changes, but change is all around Dr. Da Silva’s world. It is the 21st century. Da Silva keeps a healthy distance from the communication tool du jour – social media, the internet, texting, etc. And she asks wistfully:
Whatever happened to all those friends who used to send letters and postcards? Now people just zap off emails or no notes at all. And then, of course, so many friends have died. (p 4)
The dysfunctions of class rear their head; we see the upper middle class thumbing their noses at the less privileged who are privileged to be their house help using language the African middle class inherited from the colonial masters, treating the house help as subhuman beings. One could get a doctoral dissertation from studying this aspect of Nigerian culture.
It is not a perfect book. It is well-edited, however in Chapter 2, the narrator is in the second person, but then Mrs. Da Silva, the main protagonist shows up – in the first person. Jarring. What makes the book unusual also makes it weak on the surface. You won’t find a plot, just like life. Instead it is written and presented like a thick juicy center cut of a larger work that will appear in the future. Manyika invested a lot of quality time in the development of a few characters; the rest seem to suffer from her inattention. The result is some characters that seemed inchoate, loitering around and then disappearing abruptly like puzzling question marks. The central character suffers from a certain narcissism and some key subjects like bigotry are only scantily sketched. But then, this is America, who needs the constant reminder of Babylon’s madness? Manyika could have deleted a couple of chapters and the novella would have been better for it. But then you read elegant to-die for prose like this and you forgive the book’s flaws: “… and pats of butter so cold they sit, like hard-boiled sweets, refusing to melt on the hill of pancakes.” (p 45)
Interestingly, Paul Auster’s memoir, Winter Journal mentioned in the book and seems to have inspired Manyika’s novella, because the themes of both books are parallel. The reviews of Winter Journal are scathing. J. Robert Lennon writing in the Guardian says this:
The new book is a rambling, informal collection of memories, musings, and minutiae, presented in the second person and loosely connected by the themes of ageing and the body. It strives to give the impression that is was written extemporaneously, for the author’s own pleasure, and never intended to be published. In fact, it feels posthumous, as though discovered among Auster’s papers after his death and rushed to publication to coincide with some anniversary or memorial.
Not to be outdone, Meghan O’Rourke of the New York Times piles on rather cruelly:
Written in the second person (as if Auster were trying to separate, once and for all, the writing self from the body whose life it is describing), “Winter Journal” is a fragmentary and circuitous essay about aging that feels, a little too often, more sketched out than digested. It contains an examination of the body and its frailty and desires; a catalog of the author’s many residences in Paris and in Brooklyn; a reflection on the end of his first marriage; and an elegy for his mother, who died in 2002… “Winter Journal” is not all that philosophical, and its meditative sections have a turgid quality, like a sauce that’s overthickened.”
There are some who would quibble similarly with portions of Manyika’s book, especially if they measure it against orthodoxy. This reader enjoyed the book and appreciates the fact that Manyika dared to be different and did not strive to check the boxes of orthodoxy in order to be accepted, especially in the West. Which brings me finally to Manyika’s decision to use an African publisher, rather than to publish it in the West, where her contemporaries take serious pieces to. She starts out the conversation in the UK Guardian:
“Some people are sceptical about my decision to work with an African publisher, especially given the fact that I live in America and have access to American and European agents. They ask: does my decision make economic sense? Will an African publisher do as well as a western publisher? Behind these polite enquiries, the real question that I feel is being asked is whether an African publisher can be as good as a European or an American. The assumption is that the west does things better than Africa.
My answer is: of course, they can be just as good or just as bad. They can be even better or even worse.”
Manyika’s decision is a brave gamble; the surest way to attain international stature and prestige is to be published in the West. Here is a good piece by Catherine Byaruhanga that explains why in much of Black Africa book reading is an upper middle class pastime. The cost of books has priced most out of a habit that should be a civil right. Many African readers are self-medicating on free fare from the Internet. This is a small but necessary step; if all Africans started subjecting themselves to the compromised institutions of Black Africa they would be more motivated to fight for structural change. In the age of the Internet, Africa has to look at holistic and comprehensive ways to provide a robust analog and digital infrastructure that supports publishing and reading. Kudos to Sarah Ladipo Manyika for walking the tough talk. This reader has grown to admire and respect Cassava Republic, Manyika’s publisher. Over the years, they have become more competitive and showcased works that can compete anywhere in the world. It is good that writers like Manyika are patronizing indigenous publishers, brave souls, but I encourage everyone to look for good publishers anywhere they can find them; life is too short to be that patriotic. In any case, it is the only way we can foster competition. As far as I am concerned many of these “publishing houses” are giant stapling guns. They should just go away. In the meantime, read this book and marvel at the brilliant mind of she who knows a lot and shows it off sassily as she tools around the catacombs of San Francisco in a 993. A 993? Google it, that’s what your smartphone is for, LOL.