Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Literature

Chinua Achebe and contemporary African literature

“But in another sense it was entirely appropriate to call Achebe a contemporary African writer, since African novel-writing has scarcely progressed since he inaugurated it with the celebrated Things Fall Apart. In the decades since that title was published—the same year as The Once and Future King, Our Man in Havana, and The Dharma Bums—the American novel has evolved through a multitude of vogues and phases while the Anglophone African novel has, for the most part, remained as it was when Achebe launched it: unremarkable in its prose, flat in its characterization, anti-Western in its politics, and preoccupied with the confrontation between tradition and modernity.”

– Helen Andrews (nee Rittelmeyer) in her essay Up from Colonialism, in the Claremont Review of Books, February 10, 2014

Perhaps, if I had to share my number one frustration about African literature, it is that its trajectory and fate are over-determined by the West. The conclusions get firmer even as the purveyors get lazier. Talking about labels, here is a New York Times interview of Teju Cole on the re-release of his debut book Every Day is for the Thief in which he  tries to clarify his identity as a writer, and I guess, a human being. Specifically, Teju Cole demurs when referred to as an “African writer”, preferring the label, “internationalist” a la Salman Rushdie, whatever that means. I agree with him and respect his choice of identity. I am not sure the West cares; they are bent on making him and all writers of African descent, the exotic other. Because even though African writers protest too much, many of them have spent a lifetime making money and fame from hawking themselves as “the other.”

achebeLet me also say that “African literature” in the 21st century, to the extent that it is only judged through analog books by literary “critics” schooled in the 20th century Achebean era, will always distort our history and stories. I have said that many African writers write poor fiction because they tend to force their anxieties about social conditions into the format of fiction. The result is often awkward, they should be writing essays. But I was primarily thinking about books. Today, the vast proportion of our stories is being written on the Internet by young folks who do not have the resources that the West availed Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o et al in the 60’s. Why are we judging African literature only through books? Why?

There may be some truth to the notion that many African writers who write fiction are yet to wean themselves of Achebe’s influence. But then, the critics who make these charges should look in the mirror – and then get off their lazy butts and go read new African writers. They are out there on the Internet and in literary magazines doing us proud. And how you can do a literary critique of contemporary African writing without once mentioning Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie beats me. What about Taiye Selasi? NoViolet Bulawayo? And we are still talking about books. Give me a break, people.

ngugiLastly, to imply that Achebe was an ordinary writer is beneath contempt. Literature, stories must not be divorced from their context. Achebe’s generation wrote for my generation of children because no one else would. I would not be here today without them. They were preoccupied with the social conditions at the time, yes, but they tried to do something about them also. Indeed some died fighting for an ideal (Christopher Okigbo for instance). The challenge for today’s writers is to ensure that they are not merely recording and sometimes distorting and exaggerating Africa’s anxieties and dysfunctions for fame and fortune. To blame Achebe for our contemporary writers’ narcissism is disingenuous and silly.

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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 lately, 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, 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?

Tram 83 2

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 ream 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.

Flora Nwapa and the house that Onyeka Nwelue built for her

It is hard not to fall in love with The House of Nwapa, Onyeka Nwelue’s free-wheeling documentary on Flora Nwapa, the enigmatic writer who died in 1993. Reader, be warned, Onyeka Nwelue courts controversies and lives and breathes by them, and this documentary is no exception. Nwelue has strong views on just about anything and he offers them freely and loudly. He recently gained more notoriety for his disparaging remarks about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (in this Premium Times interview):

“I think Things Fall Apart should be buried and never made to resurrect. Yes, Anthills of the Savannah is a very beautiful book; it’s well written. But I don’t agree with Things Fall Apart being called the great African novel by everybody. There are better books. If you’ve read Things Fall Apart and have read what young people write these days – people like Helen Oyeyemi, Diekoye Oyeyinka and Chigozie Obioma – you would know that Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart at that age was not intelligent; he was not exposed.”

So, who is Flora Nwapa? In the same interview, Nwelue offers this rather colorful description of the enigma that was Nwapa:

“I have a documentary, which would be premiering at the Image Women Film Festival at Harare at the end of August. It is called The House of Nwapa on Flora Nwapa whose story has been completely erased from the literary consciousness of Nigeria. Most people have forgotten who she was, but this was the most powerful woman in the South-East in the 70s. She married two men and also married another woman for her second husband. Her uncle was the first Minister of Commerce in Nigeria, J.C Nwapa. She was Mabel Segun’s close friend but people don’t know. They were very strong women. Mabel represented Nigeria at the Olympics, while Flora engaged in her own bid as the Commissioner of Survey in the old South-Eastern region.

“Young people of my age have no idea who Flora Nwapa was, so they need to be told her story. The story is very interesting, as most of the Igbo who ran to the US during the Civil War did so through her help. She helped them through Cameroon and Portugal. Nwapa was the Registrar at the University of Lagos when the war broke out but ran back to the East to work with the refugees. Flora was the most powerful woman; I didn’t say one of the most powerful woman but the most powerful woman. Buchi Emecheta even lived with her at a point, and got the title of her book Joys of Motherhood from Flora’s first work, Efuru. Flora never called herself a feminist but she was a symbol of women’s liberation in Nigeria.”

Wikipedia also has a good biography of here (here). As documentaries go, this is an unusual production, certainly far from a perfect production, rough around all the edges, sloppy and sometimes baffling in its incoherence (not all the parts jell). Still its flaws give it a rustic charm and in a counter-intuitive sense, make it a documentary to watch. There is a trailer of the movie here on YouTube. The House of Nwapa is more than what it appears, it is not merely a collection of old footage cobbled together to make a story; in a real sense, it is more than the story of the coolly cerebral and mysterious Nwapa.

nwapaThis is an important documentary, despite its myriad technical flaws. Nwelue deserves kudos for this film, it is clearly done on a shoestring budget, but he did not wait for everything to be perfect before completing this project. He comes across as a thinker and a doer, albeit a sloppy worker. He could have used professional help and more resources. It is a crying shame that a nation like Nigeria where politicians routinely give away millions to their lovers cannot fund such a worthy initiative. Until recently, Nwapa’s significant contributions to literature, women empowerment and service to Nigeria have suffered benign neglect. This is a shame; Flora Nwapa is an incredibly important marker of African literature. It is great that of recent her name is becoming common on the lips of lovers of literature. Nwapa is best known for the epic novel Efuru which turns 50 this year (there are quite a few plans by fans to celebrate the event).

It bears repeating: The House of Nwapa is best described as a work in progress, not quite ready for prime time but what he has done, you must watch. Kudos to Nwelue’s boundless energy, passion and persistence. He clearly did the research and traveled thousands of miles and quite a few continents to bring together many fascinating people willing to talk about Nwapa. Watching the documentary, one gets a sense that this is really more than Nwapa, but about the world that she lived in. The viewer will love the historical black and white video clips from the archives that Nwelue inserted in the documentary beginning with a clip about Biafra that starts the movie. In it, a young unbroken and defiant Biafran lady intones, “Biafra is going to emerge as a nation. We shall never go back to Nigeria again!” Her dream is still, well, a dream.

The voice over is done by Onyeka Nwelue the producer of the documentary who tries hard to tee up controversies by setting up rivalries and binary arguments: Yakubu Gowon versus Odumegwu Ojukwu, Chinua Achebe versus Wole Soyinka, Nwapa versus Mabel Segun, etc. Ona Nwelue, Nwelue’s mother, a distant relative of Nwapa plays a cameo role, and there is the flamboyant Charles Oputa aka Charly Boy along with a host of her relatives offering salacious if not gossipy tidbits about Nwapa. To be honest, some of the footage can be baffling, it is either not clear why this is about Nwapa or why this is about literature. It all makes for fun viewing though. There is a particularly charming section where young Nwelue is interviewing Professor Wole Soyinka. One comes face to face with Soyinka’s mortality, he looks a bit frail and hard of hearing. He clearly needed his hearing aid. And you want to hug Kongi, awesome lion luxuriating in the winter of his life’s journey.

nwelueandmomNwelue did back-breaking research for this documentary. Sadly, one wonders if many of those Nigerians interviewed ever read any of Nwapa’s books. If they did, they had a poor way of showing it. Many of the responses were vague anecdotes, syrupy panegyrics with little substance. Many who ordinarily would know about Nwapa are old and having trouble recalling much of substance. The legendary James Currey, editorial editor (1967-1984) of Heinemann’s African Writers Series struggled mightily to recall Nwapa or anything profound she had said when he allegedly knew her in the sixties. I would not have used that interview. The interviews with Nwapa’s children (Ejine Nzeribe, Amede Obiora, and Uzoma Nwakuche) were charming but if you were looking for literary insights from them, you would be disappointed. The son Uzoma Nwakuche remembers a lot about his mother but not much about her books. If he read them, it doesn’t show. He remembers that his sister met the late Haile Selassie of Ethipoia and he offers that: “I knew my mom more as a mother than as a writer!”

Nwelue trots out several younger writers who offer opinions ranging from profound to the banal to the baffling. It was great to see Wale Okediran and Tess Onwueme., however, many clearly had not read a page of what Nwapa ever wrote but felt obliged to humor Nwelue. The most charming – and head-scratching is Nwelue’s interview with the young writer Mitterand Okorie. There is no mention of Nwapa in the interview, just a benign plug about his new book, All That is Bright and Ugly. I am not sure why the footage is there, it looks like something from a failed project that was thrown in as a filler. We do learn a lot about Okorie who shyly brags about “an accomplished dating life but full of turbulence” that involved up to ten girls over a ten-year dating period and who offers that he loves sex if “it is methodical, if you don’t just want to lie down and do mama and papa style, you will enjoy the act.” Too funny. But why was it here? Ask Nwelue, his demons are many.

The interview with the eighty-six year old writer Mabel Segun is worth the cost of watching the documentary. She is feisty and mabel_segunfunny as hell. She literally took over the interview and over a lengthy period of time, with Nwelue watching amused, she set out to debunk the notion that Nwapa was the pioneer of women’s literature in Nigeria, she loudly and effectively situated herself in a rung in the ladder above Nwapa and trotted out documentary evidence of other women writers. She reminds us of other female writers like Zulu Sofola, Zainab Alkali, Adaora Lily Ulasi, etc. You must watch that part, Segun does not take prisoners. She is colorful, kai, she has kind and unkind things to say about many writers living and dead and you fall on the floor laughing as she ridicules her ex-husband and his philandering ways. The title of the documentary should be changed to The House of Flora Nwapa and Mabel Segun, Her thesis? Women were not silent before Nwapa! She has interesting things to say about the NLNG Prize and Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo with whom she shared the then $30,000 prize in 2007. Talk about feisty, lol.

I enjoyed Nwelue’s trip to Oguta Lake in Imo State, Nwapa’s ancestral land, in his search of the connection between Ogbuide the water goddess of Oguta Lake and Nwapa. There are rumors that the water goddess was Nwapa’s guiding spirit or demiurge just as Ogun is Soyinka’s. The research is at best inconclusive but gives us some of the best scenes of the movie.

Polygamy is treated well here. Nwelue’s interviews of several of the writers included an interrogation of Nwapa’s conflicted views about feminism. This part I found interesting as I listened to many writers like Jahman Anikulapo who asserted that Nwapa’s generation did not need to raise their voices; they simply had a deeper understanding of the concept of feminism. He seemed dismissive of what he termed the “cyberspace feminism” of the current generation. Similarly the writer Chinyere Obi Obasi saw Nwapa as a pragmatic feminist. These and many other views including that of Nwelue who served as a highly opinionated voice over are bound to extend the debate on feminism into fiery territory. Ainehi Edoro has an insightful piece on Nwapa’s ambivalence towards feminism, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of her epic book, Efuru. There are other interesting anecdotes offered by established Nigerian writers like Adimora-Ezeigbo and Denja Abdullahi, the current president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). They and an army of Nwapa’s relatives provided interesting anecdotes about her life.

Nwapa, ever enigmatic and mysterious features as herself in a couple of video clips where she is interviewed and where she is dancing. They are lovely scenes, she is pretty, graceful, cerebral and purposeful. And she dances and dances and dances like someone with no care in the world. Thanks to Nwelue, we can now say that her personal life is well documented. She was sensual, coolly bold and ahead of her times. In the video narrative was rumored to have had many relationships with many men. She was in a polygamous marriage with Gogo Nwakuche and the second wife, Maudline Nwakuche. It all makes up for a very enigmatic character and the best work Nwelue does in the documentary is to pretty much establish that there is a biographical slant to Efuru. All very interesting.

In a supreme irony, the better prepared interviewees were foreign experts. There is Margaret Busby (good interview of her here) whose response to patriarchy and literature was to produce The Daughters of Africa, an anthology of poetry by 200 female poets. In the documentary she mentions that Soyinka’s poetry anthology did not feature a female and in a sense her collection was a response to that omission. Professor Sabine Jell Bahlsen anthropologist, and author Water Goddess was similarly insightful. Watch this footage of her on Nwapa and Efuru at the 2016 conference in London. Professor Mani M Meitei, Dean of Humanities, Manipur University in India who translated Things Fall Apart into Manipuri seemed to have done his homework. Soyinka by contrast, merely offered that Nwapa was “one of us.” In general, I would say that Nwelue had great access to several important actors, he was however not disciplined enough to take full advantage of the opportunity.

The House of Nwapa is a labor of love and you end up grinning through it all, there is never a dull moment and sometimes for reasons other than the literary. We need more of this.  Inspiring is the list of funders, most of them private individuals on Facebook, who helped a dreamer execute a worthy project. I love that Nwelue gave them all credit at the end of the documentary. We need more patrons of the arts like these folks. Go watch the documentary and see the names for yourselves. Where should you watch it? I don’t know, you would have to ask Nwelue himself. You know where to find him. On social media.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is not short: This life as haiku

I came to America from Nigeria several moons ago, me, a frightened man-child armed with a suitcase, the hopes and blessings of my ancestors. Today in America, my two daughters go to school in the suburbs and they come back home and teach me something new about America. Every day, my little girls come home to me with a little piece of America. The teachers touch my children and my children touch me. A thousand moons after America adopted me, I still marvel at the America that I see through my daughters’ eyes.”

Ikhide Roland Ikheloa, The Washington Post, July 7, 2002

 

I am not a writer. But I practise being one because you don’t need a license to write. You just write and gbam! you are a writer.

I hate to brag; The Washington Post once published me. 100 words. I think it was less, after they’d edited my fantastic tales. I was over the moon. Literally. And figuratively. I shall explain.

Every Sunday, the Washington Post would invite the reader to write something short and personal and if it suited the Post’s fancy, the piece would get published on a Sunday along with a picture (yes, a Post photographer actually comes to you, takes a billion pictures out of which the one you hate the most is used). For the picture, I wore a wretched tie dye shirt that reeked of the West’s Africa and suffering, and held on to my kids, an African grateful to America for saving me from a war that was Africa. Truth is, when I left Africa, I left heaven and came to a former haven that had been paved into hell (that is not original, do not applaud me please!).

Many African writers, me included, should be hauled before a Truth Commission and made to apologize profusely to Africa for all the lies we have told against her, for fame and fortune. We are ingrates. And hustlers.

Well, truth is, I knew once I started writing that I would be published. Why? I started my fable thusly: “Many moons ago..,” and ended with a weepy expression of gratitude to America for what, I don’t remember. Africa as the exotic other, America as the savior of the cute African. The Washington Post loved it. And I became a published writer.

I have since written a few other pieces to great and enthusiastic reception by Western editors enthralled by my “enthusiastic” prose. There are days I hate writing, it is so phony, many times.

Many American publishers seem fascinated by the bullshit narrative of immigrants; “aliens” who come from places where the natives measure time in moons, go to the river to bathe and shit, etc. I write about moons a lot. I don’t know why moons appear often in my narrative, in real life the moon holds no special fascination for me, except for a brief stint in our ancestral village, during the Nigerian civil war, I lived in the cities of Nigeria most of my life there and I don’t remember the moon much, the cities are very civilized, hehehe, there’s a lot of smog and so I am proud to say that I did not see any pristine moon.

About wild animals, I have an uncle we call Elephant and there was this other uncle who lived in the forests of a place called Omolege, who used to bring us meat he claimed was from an elephant. Our mother Izuma would cook the hide for hours, and offer it to us kids. The hide was thick and as tender as a stone, you could chew that sucker for months and we did.

I digress, excuse me. I believe I did see an elephant in a zoo in Ibadan or Benin City in the early 70’s. There are unreliable reports that the elephant was converted to dinner by irate zookeepers who had not been paid for months. Or maybe that was the Zoo in Washington DC, they have had issues with being paid over there on occasion, the almost annual federal government shutdown and whatnot, dunno jor.

Why do we write these things? Well, every African writer will deny this in public but will tell you privately that his or her dream is to be published by a Western outfit, journal, newspaper, publishing house, etc,, etc. – Guernica, Eclectica, The New Yorker, The New York Times, etc. etc. Our elders say you have not arrived until you have been published by Guernica. An email acceptance is usually cause for raucous joy.

Our star writers would never be seen dead writing in a Nigerian newspaper; that would sully their brand, who does that? Do you blame them though? I don’t know about the rest of Africa, but Nigeria is undergoing a crisis in its newspaper and publishing industries. The quality of the output over there is highly suspect and ambitious writers know to go to more robust institutions in the West where your work is guaranteed to be raked through the coals by a beady-eyed eagle of an editor, and at times subjected to a peer review.

Over there in Babylon, their bullshit factor is low. I once submitted a piece for Guernica, my experience was hellish; the editing was relentless, the editor politely but firmly asked me to substantiate assertions and claims in my essay, who does that? They could tell my bullshit factor was high. It was a lot of work getting published over there. I made a mental note never to return to Guernica to write again, ever. Nonsense. Why, outside of Molara Wood and NEXT and Farafina, and Nkem Ivara, no Nigerian editor has ever as much as edited a letter in my pieces. It is all cut-and-paste.

What is my point? I don’t know. I am just rambling, bored to my gills and writing whatever comes to my head. I crave elephant ponmo. Literature is dead. Long live social media. Good night.

Haiku

Petina Gappah: Unreliable witnesses and the burden of memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gappah2pic

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

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

 

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

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

– Born on a Tuesday, Elnathan John p116

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

For “Allah Dey” Odunewu: Ikhide, Meet Chekhov

I once wrote some nonsense on Facebook right after my second glass of cognac, the sort that comes easily to me after ogogoro has started making me see tomorrow. It went something like this: “America. Night. The trees lean on the road, limbs gnarled with need, pawing weary cars, leaves whispering, ‘Oga sah! Anything for the boys?’” An impressed white writer who happened to be at home drinking also, asked me: “There is something Chekhovian in your use of language. Do you write short stories and, if so, was Chekhov an influence?”

I had heard of Chekhov, a great white writer who wrote many great things. All African writers are on first name basis with him including those who have never read Chinua Achebe. Over the years I have acquired Chekhov’s books hoping to bone up on them in case I get that all important call from The New Yorker for an interview in which a great legendary writer, say Salman Rushdie, would ask me questions on the post-Chekhovian influences in my profound works. Unfortunately, each time I try to read Chekhov; I fall asleep on his book. It is an embarrassing medical issue. Ben Okri’s books fill me with wonder also, that there are human beings on earth that have managed to finish one, just one of his books. I have all his books and I can assure the world that I have fallen asleep on every one of them, beginning with The Famished Road. Okri is a genius but many of his books are quite simply unreadable. I said it, sue me. Life is too short to be miserable just because you want to brag that you have read Okri.

So when the writer asked me about Chekhov’s influence on my works, I panicked. This man was going to disgrace me today on Facebook with over one thousand pair of amebo eyes watching gleefully. Before I could google Chekhov, my good friends, the writers Olu Oguibe and Obiwu Iwuanyanwu (Obiwu) rushed to my rescue. Well, sort of. They assured him that Ikhide would not know Chekhov from Czechoslovakia, that indeed my drunken words were influenced by ogogoro – my number one influence in life. I am not making this up, here is word for word what Obiwu wrote: “Now dem dey say na Chekhov dey make Ikhide write as im dey write! But no, no be Chekhov at all. Na Chike Offia im next door neighbor for Okpanam dey influence Ikhide im grammar! “Chike Offia! Right after that hurtful but awfully accurate analysis of the degree of my vacuity, my white friend immediately unfriended me on Facebook. Now, thanks to my friends Oguibe and Obiwu, I have no white friends on Facebook. With bad belle friends like those who needs enemies?

It took me exactly two weeks to finish reading Teju Cole’s Open City because every sentence required a visit to Google, all these dead white people that have written wondrous things and played heavenly music. My nightmare is that I will one day meet Teju Cole AND debate him on Alexander Solzhenitsyn and something called the Gulag Archipelago, gulp!

Whenever I am going anywhere stressful, like work, I always take Chinua Achebe’s Thing Fall Apart with me, don’t ask me why. One day, at the hospital, this doctor glances at the book and said casually, “I have read that book!” I was so excited, I almost wept with gratitude, why, a Westerner has actually read the greatest book ever written by a human being who happens to be African. I don’t know any white writer who can name an African writer besides Chinua Achebe. We should call them shallow insular illiterates. I am now studying important dead white writers because this newspaper would like to interview me (yes, I am a superstar, may your bad belle not kill you). If they ask me to talk about my literary influences and I respond truthfully, it would be full of nonsense: “Well, my most powerful literary influence is Achebe, followed by James Ngugi (that’s what we called him before he got confused and started writing in Swahili!). Also, my uncle Elephant taught me about the power of words especially after a very tall tumbler of apeteshie. My mother Izuma, Razor Blade of Nigeria taught me how a woman with the right words can get a tall strapping powerful man like my Papalolo flying across a room whimpering with hurt. And Alade Odunewu (Allah Dey!) and Andy Akporugo and the comics. Fearless Fang used to ride his elephant in Boom. There was Rabon Zollo and Lance Spearman And of course all the njakiri poets I have hung out with on the rugged streets of my village, prattle prattle prattle!” I can just imagine the pen in the interviewer’s hand freezing stiff with shock, her face going, “You are shitting me! YOU don’t know Chekhov?” Now, dear oyinbo interviewer, do you know “Allah de” Odumewu? Nonsense.