Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Uncategorized

My father’s cupboard

My father had a cupboard of books. It was probably our most prized possession, even as he was “transferred” by the Nigerian police from Nigeria’s nook to cranny, he and I always made sure that the cupboard of books had an exalted place in the “transfer” lorry that took us to our new home in the barracks. 
In that cupboard, Professor Chinua Achebe’s books were exalted guests. I traveled the world through the books in that cupboard. My father’s cupboard was magical, no matter how many times I visited it, there was always a book I had never read. In Ruskin Bond’s Room on the Roof, I traveled to India, in Richmal Crompton’s Williams series, I saw little boys that looked like me in far away Britain.
 About my father, I am not sure my dad ever read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I know he read No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People. In those days, we had one of those standing mirrors that were in every Nigerian “parlour.” My father, who had secretly dreamt of going “overseas” to get “the golden fleece”, would stand before the mirror, twirl his Honda motorcycle keys around his fingers and go, “How’s the car behaving?” a way of greeting by the new African elites in Achebe’s book, No Longer at Ease, those mimic-white folks who came back home in those huge ships. My dad envied them, no end and he never tired of telling me that he would have been one of them if I had not come along. 

My dad loved A Man of the People and on some evenings over a glass of beer, he would yell, ‘Chief Nanga, MP!” and he and I would practically fall on the ground laughing at the antics of that corrupt politician. There were other books that my father loved, I remember pretty much all the books of the African Writers Series that Achebe helped to birth. My father loved TM Aluko’s books, especially One Man One Wife, a book my dad liked to quote loudly within earshot of our mother. He chafed at monogamy and he endured it, with a few missteps. His pet name for our mother Izuma was Ailegwale, that is, the only course, no appetizer, no dessert! 
I will always remember Achebe because his books were one reason I bonded with my dad, a complex but loving man. I inherited my dad’s passions, a lot of them demons, his love for beautiful people, good music, words, a good bottle, and books. Achebe saved my dad and me with the power of words. He was a giant, powerful eagle perched at the head of a pack of thinkers and doers who insisted on telling us our stories, at a time when that was what you had to do to entertain children and their parents. I lost a father in Achebe, this man who made my father play with me.

Dear African writer in the Diaspora: What is your mission?

Dear African writer in the Diaspora, what is your mission? Africa is a basket case. We know that! In the 21st century, does the reader really need a book of fiction to see that much of Africa is a basket case? We know that! It is all over YouTube! We do not need you telling us ad nauseam, we certainly do not need you exaggerating Africa’s already dire condition for the West’s reading pleasure. Yes, it is only the West that reads you. These books are for the benefit of the West, those that read in Africa do not have access to much of these books. What is your mission?
What is the purpose of literature anyway? How is it that there is a narrowness of range and depth in the literature that we read of in your books? Is this really the sum of our experience? I speak for myself as a reader, I do not need happy stories, no, I need narrative that is not contrived by Diaspora writers who hardly go home to visit. The reader knows. 

There is also this thing called credibility; when your books are “launched” by criminal leaders, when your “conferences” are sponsored by thug leaders, when your imaginary associations are funded from government funds inserted into the budget in the dead of night, when criminal rulers spend one million American dollars for your two-hour dinners, when you are the hand behind the twitter handle of common ruler-thieves you can’t come to me and read me a book of deprivation and injustice and not expect me to laugh in your face. 

How many of you “writers” have lifted a voice to complain about the massacres in Nigeria, the looting, even Chibok? How many of you have asked where Dr. Stella Nyanzi is? That vile dictator Museveni has locked up Dr. Nyanzi because she accused his wife of having two buttocks! What are you doing? You are writing cute things for the white man, giving his children awesome lectures when you are not protesting Trump or racism in the West. Nonsense! 

Abeg, continue to write your lived experience o, na who hold you? We are simply saying we don’t want to read it. We are not saying we are happy, we are simply saying we are not happy with your bullshit, LOL! Want to know why Linda Ikeji and BBN are more influential than Adichie? It is called a failure of leadership… y’all be writing poverty porn o, which one concern me?

Many times, fiction is the last refuge of the coward. What the hell is art? I say to you, if someone comes to your home, slaps you, calls your lover ugly and defecates on your floor and say it is art, slap him, call his lover ugly and go defecate on his floor and call it art also. Joyce Cary, Joseph Conrad, VS Naipaul, these writers told you, your people have no civilization, there are no thinkers where you come from and you are all sub humans and in school you were told this is art, this is fiction, and you took exams where you had to answer yes to the question: “Are Africans sub-human?” If you said, “No, we are human beings”, you failed. Now, the offspring of Africa are back in the garb of racists and jerks telling you the same thing about your women, about your humanity, about your civilization, and because you have no self-esteem, you are calling those who define and defile you artists. Clap for yourselves.

Who are these people anyway? They are the children of looters who built those disused Concorde runways rotting in the jungles of the beautiful Congo, they are the children of those who looted Africa dry and built libraries as monuments to their perfidy. Their children are back from learning French and Spanish and in fake accents they are calling the abused names that should be reserved for their own parents. I say, sell your silly little books to the West, we don’t want them. 

And I say to you, words are powerful, if you do not listen closely to the politics of your storyteller you will be a slave. I have said my own. You are all full of it. Your books are worthless. I have said it, Oya comman beat me!🏃🏿 
#FreeStellaNyanzi

Nigeria: The way we are

There is a reason why many people like me have lost interest in commenting on Nigerian politics. What seems abnormal to me is really the new normal. Nigeria is what it is and there is this sense that I am crying louder than the bereaved. Our dysfunction is now deeply dyed into our cultural fabric. People have basically decoupled themselves from nationhood and community and are now looking out for themselves. It is so blatant. When I speak with people at home, no matter how you steer them into politics, they don’t seem interested. They seem focused on the self – by all means necessary. They just want to “hammer.” It is what it is. 
Why are we like this? Why are things the way they are? There is really no shame, no sense of self-reflection, words trump deeds and style is the all important victor over substance. There is no leadership, to be honest, and I am not just talking about political leadership. We are all the same in the communal hypocrisy and greed. I think about how public intellectuals are struggling to normalize, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, SLS, the Emir of Kano, Mr. Glib, Mr. Do what I say, a note what I do, and I remember, they normalized Buhari, they normalized Amaechi, they normalized El-Rufai, they normalized Obasanjo. Their job as intellectuals is to make you forget. #AnimalFarm. If you are a thief and a thug and you are generous to them, you can murder hundreds, you can steal billions, you can be incompetent and you will be fine. You will not be a distressed character in their insincere books and essays. 
You must not separate the messenger from the message; when you do you decouple them from their sins. These people have ruined our country. How can we soon forget SLS’s misdeeds? No, he is a charming soul, he says all the right things, and if he likes you, he will be your Robin Hood. He loves public intellectuals. This is my larger point: There is no hope for Nigeria. I do not see any progress through my generation or the generation coming after. Indeed the generation coming after promises to be much worse judging by their antics on social media. They are training you to be unthinking dolts. Do not ask questions, they say, this is church!

There is no hope. If you doubt me, do a survey of where our leaders and their families go to for education, health, vacations, good living. Not in Nigeria. Buhari’s dying veins are hooked to the laboratory machines of the secret agencies of the West. Imagine that, after billions of Naira budgeted for a medical clinic our president had to go abroad to the West to attend to his health. The CIA knows everything about his blood cells. We don’t. Go figure. Nigeria is not a country. 

For what will happen to much of Africa, look to where your leaders are. At some point we will have to tell ourselves the truth. Let’s all agree with our bumbling, thieving rulers and their intellectual enablers: We cannot govern ourselves. Today, we are in denial about that truth. We will admit this soon and outsource governance to WalMart and McDonalds. They will save our people just as the cell phone saved my mother from my father’s patriarchy and Nigeria’s incompetence. Walmart will sell us Do-It-Yourself governance kits. If you don’t have credit, you die… 

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.

On that Buhari Media Center, paid “public intellectuals” and assorted jazz

What’s on my mind? The Buhari Media Center, the pejorative now known as the BMC. Apparently, there is a place in Abuja, Nigeria, where young men and women are assembled and for 200-250K a month they are mandated to spin the national narrative in a certain direction – to please and flatter Aso Rock. The discovery of this house of poorly educated (from their tweets and FB posts, they surely need to be in school, not “proffering solutions, lol) imitation Goebbels has created quite the furor. For good reason.

What do I think? I am not exercised by it. I do think the government of the day has every right to have a PR outfit. Indeed Buhari’s abysmal leadership performance has required a really robust professional PR team to help the populace swallow the bitter pill of disappointment that has been Aso Rock to date. The BMC is of course far from professional and effective. But that is another Facebook post. By the way, the irony and the hypocrisy are not lost on me that the government appears to be paying an army of hustlers lots of money to do what Audu Maikori got detained for: manufacturing and/or spreading fake news. Audu apologized. The others got paid.

What I have found objectionable is that those behind the BMC appear to have been paying young writers/bloggers/social media “overlords” and other assorted scumbags to appear to be objective public commentators. That toga has of course given them cover and credibility to spin the narrative and national discourse at least on social media, in the favor of their paymasters. In many instances they have engaged in Goebellsian subterfuge, bullying, blackmailing and trying to run aground people with views hostile to Aso Rock’s agenda. That is wrong. Disgusting actually. All this time, many of us had been engaging paid hacks and we did not know it. They have every right to be employed, we the public have every right to know their names and how much they are paid so that we can discount their utterances accordingly.

In fairness, as obnoxious as they are, the members of the BMC team are tiny shrimp in the grand scheme of things. They are being paid pennies to write half-baked stuff, while “public commentators” who many Nigerians think are independent arbiters of public opinion are bleating all the way to the bank with millions of Naira. One day, the records will be released and Nigerians will gasp at the unmasking of masquerades. Many voices are being paid to do many awful things to dissenting voices. The members of the BMC is bad, but they are altar boys compared to the big guns paid to defend darkness. Many of those concerned Nigerians who write on “international newspapers” are doing what the government has paid them to write. Yup. I happen to know.

Many nations would require these paid lobbyists to register publicly as, well, lobbyists. Once identified, the public clearly knows where they are coming from. When they write op-ed pieces in the New York Times, they are required to issue a disclaimer at the end of the piece – that they are paid lobbyists of clearly identified interests. Not so our Nigerian hustlers. They do not understand the notion of conflict of interest and ethical violations. There is no motivation because they are not held accountable, the laws are not enforceable.

I was once part of an editorial board that had a top ranking aide of a governor as a sitting member. He did not understand why it was a conflict to be making “objective” comments about governmental policies of that which you serve. And virtually everyone on the Board agreed with him. Much of what we do with respect to the Nigerian project is a farce, we have pretend functions and processes and just want to look the part. We are really not that interested in ethical conduct. It doesn’t put enough food on the table.

Let me end on a positive note by thanking all those mostly young advocates who have forced the government’s feet to the fire by using technology, hard data and good old shoe leather hard work. Without them we would be held hostage by a heavily compromised media, a corrupt tribe of intellectuals and a deadly congress of baboons pretending to rule our nation. Young people are taking matters into their hands and making some progress without the help of anyone. I see how they dealt with the budget scandals, Buhari’s health issues, Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai’s attempts to gag dissent, etc and I am filled with pride. A lot more needs to be done, and things will get better. We have no choice. There may be hope after all.

Good night.

Sex, the bees and the boys…

Sex. Let’s talk about sex, you know, let’s talk about the birds and the bees. In my country, Africa, there is this lovely tradition where elderly men call young men into the family room, or sunroom or living room of their huts and over human skull cups of ice-cold beer, Malbec, or warm cognac VSOP, tell them about the birds and the bees, you know, sex.

By the way, in Africa, men do not teach girls about sex, it is taboo for real men to talk to women about those things. That is the job of women. This is a fact. Read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart please for more information about this great custom, in that great book, girls learn the truth, that babies come into this world on the strong backs of weaver birds. This is why African men flog boys who come close to their daughters. Unless they are rich. Girls must remain chaste for their weaver birds.

So this one day, my dad Papalolo talked to me about sex and got me drunk. I remember that fateful day. It was in 1980 on a cold snowy harmattan day in our village, Ewu. I was very young, I had just finished my national youth service corp program (NYSC) after graduating from the University of Benin, the Harvard of Africa, with a First Class Upper degree. I hate to brag, but I am the only one in Africa with a First Class, Upper degree. Yes o, I was always first in class! Nor be today I begin to know book!

As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself, I walked into Papalolo’s sunroom (we have those in Africa, you know, smh!) with a copy of The Economist under one arm while texting my friend Emeka on my Samsung Galaxy 1.5 about meeting him at Shoprite down the road later. I loved hanging out with Emeka, we would hold hands like real men do, and go from store to store in our village mall dreaming about going to Dubai together and buying things we couldn’t afford! We loved Victoria’s Secrets, our village mall had one across from Radio Shack. I loved our village Radio Shack, I was always buying knick-knacks from there with my dad’s American Express card. Long story. I will tell you later.

Anyway, as I walked into the room, my dad looked up at me and he frowned, he was in a bad mood, I quickly surmised that he was missing his iPad; Obioma the tailor had taken it away for repairs, the Made in China SIM card was not working and GLO and MTN signals were being finicky. Dad did not look happy.

In those days, my dad, Papalolo loved to be on Facebook where he would spend all day “liking” inanities and typing “LOL!”on cute girls’ walls while drinking Gulder or cognac, and when he couldn’t be on Facebook or Twitter, he would become a crabby pain in the ass.

This day, I was his victim. As I walked into his sunroom, he looked up from his beer and copy of Sahara Reporters (in those days, they had print copy), peered at me through his bifocals, coughed and said, “My son, I never see you with girls! All I see you with are men and books, abi you don’t like women? Abomination! Tufiakwa!” We are not igbo, I don’t know why he was fond of bleating “Tufiakwa!” Perhaps, it was all those Achebe books he read! I told him I liked women but I didn’t know what to say to them! He said, “Ah, that’s easy, my son, whenever you see a pretty woman, tell her she’s pretty, she will smile and once you make a woman smile you are half way there! If she’s not pretty, tell her she’s pretty anyway, when she smiles she’ll be pretty!” I told him I am too shy to talk to girls. He shoved a bottle of Gulder beer in my hands, “Here, drink a beer, it will loosen your tongue and make you bold in front of women! Drink two sef!” Papalolo was right, beer loosens tongues!

Well, the other day here in America, I decided I needed to talk to our teenage son Fearless Fang about the birds and the bees, you know, sex. I would start early, no need waiting for him to graduate from the university! So, we were in the car Anikeleja cruising along the highway and I coughed and said, “Son, we have to talk about sex!” OMG!, you’d think I had shot this boy! He screamed,”OH MY GOD, DADDY!!!! THAT IS SOOOOO DISGUSTING!!! THAT IS WHAT HEALTH CLASS IS FOR!!! STOP THIS CAR RIGHT NOW!!! I AM SO CALLING SOCIAL SERVICES ON YOUR AFRICAN BLACK ASS, SMH!!! OH MY GOD, DADDY, WHY WOULD I BE DISCUSSING SEX WITH YOU, GROSS!!! YOU ARE MY DADDY! STOP THIS CAR RIGHT NOW!!! OH MY GOD, DADDY!!! WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS? I WANT MY MUMMY!!!”

I was driving at 70 miles per hour, I am telling you, that boy jumped out of the car and raced back home into the waiting arms of his mother, whimpering, “Bad daddy! Bad daddy!!!” What a wimp! At his age, I was a colonel in the Biafran army, assisting Carl Gustav Von Rosen to drop ogbunigwe bombs in the moat in Benin City.

So much for sex ed. SMH. That did not go well. Sigh. I will continue the conversation in our sunroom after Fearless Fang graduates from university. We have sunrooms in America, you know? I wonder if ML has talked to the girls about sex! I am not going there, who wan die? Besides I am a titled chief, the Ogbejele II of Esanland. It would be taboo for me to talk to our daughters about those things! I am sure ML has told them that children come from heaven on the backs of weaver birds or American storks and it is bad luck for a boy to touch them anywhere until they are thirty! Pray for me.

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So Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, who cares?

bob-dylanThe world has not rested since the 2016 Nobel Prize was awarded, not to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, but to Bob Dylan, that legendary poet who also sings. There have been impassioned essays for and against the award to Dylan. It all makes for fascinating reading.  Take this piece from Rajeev Balasubramanyam, writing in the Washington Post (October 22, 2016) who makes an interesting case for why Ngugi should have won the prize:

Ngugi’s decision to move away from English was a brave one for a writer hailing from Africa, a continent frequently treated as irrelevant by the rest of the world. It could, in fact, have led to his disappearance from the global stage, but instead it solidified his reputation as a writer of supreme political commitment, though few of his contemporaries or juniors took up the call to write in their native languages. Ngugi’s attitude toward this, however, is markedly self-aware and flexible.

 We of the elder generation,” he told the New African three years ago, “are so bound up by our anti-colonial nationalism, which is important for us but the younger generation ― they are free. You find they don’t confine their characters necessarily to Africa. They are quite happy to bring in characters from other races, and so on … that’s good because they are growing up in a multicultural world.

Okay, let me share a few thoughts:

1. Ngugi richly deserves the Nobel, no ifs, no buts about it. This warrior deserved the Nobel in celebration of a prodigious life marked by industry, hard work, innovation, a profound love for the word and its application in civil rights activism.

2. Ngugi’ innovation, in my view, is not in experimenting with writing in a Kenyan language. I didn’t find that particularly innovative, many writers (not well known of course) have always written in indigenous African languages. It was quixotic in the sense that there was not a market for it, a bold experiment perhaps, but not innovative.

3. Literary innovation was in how in their early works, Ngugi and Chinua Achebe took the English language and appropriated it as if it was an African language. I will go so far as to say they made it an African language. Achebe, said it all, as if with a wink and a smirk: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” It is thanks to them and the young writers of the Internet and social media, and not to today’s contemporary African writer (of books), that words like “molue” and “egusi” are now words defined in English dictionaries (Yes, Google it!).

4. I would have danced myself crazy had Ngugi won. For many years, I agonized over Chinua Achebe not winning the Nobel Prize. I once said something about this in the once thriving literary list-serve krazitivity and I think it was the writer Obiwu, not sure anymore, who counseled me against looking outside for validation, Achebe was certainly not sitting around waiting for the Nobel to honor him. That spoke to me and in a sense has inspired me also to urge us to look inwards.ngugi

5. These are exciting times to be a reader if you love African literature. I have said this ad nauseam, advances in technology, especially the advent of the Internet and social media have exposed the world to the universe of the narratives of Africa. Our books are still incredibly important but you have to read the young men and women who are doing some pretty amazing and innovative work on the Internet and on social media to get a sense of the sum of our stories. They have pushed the frontiers of the work started by pioneers like Ngugi and Achebe. In their stories, we think, laugh, make love and cry like the human beings we are. Africans are not the pathetic disease-ridden stick figures we read of in African books of fiction. Like their Western counterparts they have learned to be “provincial” as the writer Chigozie Obioma wrongly (in my view) puts it in his recent piece in the Guardian, or in my words, insular. I applaud the new African writers of the Internet and social media. They don’t explain themselves, they just write. If you are curious enough, google “egusi” or “molue.”

6. These are exciting times to be a reader if you love African literature. Advances in technology, especially the advent of the Internet and social media have exposed the world to the universe of the narratives of Africa. Our books are still incredibly important but you have to read the young men and women who are doing some pretty amazing and innovative work on the Internet and on social media to get a sense of the sum of our stories. They have pushed the frontiers of the work started by gusi” just as you would “crumpets.” If you care enough about my world, you would be curious about my words. These young men and women do not write for the West, they just write. And guess what, the world is getting it. I say to young writers, keep doing more of what you are doing, may you profit from your demons.achebe

7. And profit they should. Young African writers need a lot of support and affirmation. They are doing good work and they need all the help that they can get. I have serious issues with Nigeria’s NLNG $100,000 prize, I have been loud in decrying is as an embarrassment. It is a crying shame that the NLNG Prize committee spends the equivalent of the Nobel Prize (about $1 million) yearly to award a $100,000 lottery to one writer. I am happy for Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, he and Elnathan John (a runner-up along with the awesome writer, Chika Unigwe, a previous winner of the award) are exactly the kinds of exciting young writers I have in mind when I am talking about innovation in African writing. I have studied those two and think their entries are among the most important narrative to come out of Nigeria in the past decade or so, but we must push the conversation about how best to use $1 million every year. Right now, much of it is being wasted and the prize is seen more as an absurd give away than a real literary prize. There are so many innovative projects that the money could be used for. It is exciting to talk about the Nobel and who they should give their money to, but we have a great opportunity here in the NLNG Prize being wasted like a gas flare. By the way, I would have split the prize between Abubakar and Elnathan, they were both deserving of the award.

8. We need to support not just African writers of fiction and poetry and drama, we should also support the essayists in our midst. At the risk of generalizing, my observation is that African writers don’t do fiction well, many times what they call fiction is autobiography or long theses on social anxieties. Many of these works of fiction should be essays or works of creative nonfiction. Acknowledging these efforts might encourage many African writers to focus on their area of expertise. Even at that, writers should not wait for prizes or seminal events to hurriedly staple together thoughts. Many of the essays on Bob Dylan, for or against, that I have enjoyed were actually written months if not years ago. Western journalists and writers tend to anticipate events and write ahead. May Soyinka live long to torment us with his genius but he won’t live forever. Many Western newspapers have already written his obituary. Our writers are merely waiting. When he passes on to the next pantheon, there will be syrupy pieces on how we drank wine together. Get to work. Today.

9. Writers and thinkers should look at our world and ask hard questions about the way things are – and adjust to the changing of the seasons. I am happy that the award was given to Bob Dylan. Students and fans of Bob Dylan like me fully appreciate the Nobel for not only honoring him, but for in an unintended way, giving a loud nod to the fact that today’s literature is no longer your mama’s literature. Where it was once flat, it is now multi-dimensional, in song, on YouTube, in print and on the oral tradition of my ancestors.

10. So, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize and I am delirious and happy for him, who cares? African literature is undergoing a renaissance. We are making progress. I am happy.

Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Trump, Hurricane Aso Rock, and the silence of lambs…

Corruption kills;
absolute corruption kills absolutely;
so does silence,
aiding, being accessory to the realities
of corruption invested in all kinds of affiliations…

Trapped, double-trapped, triple-trapped…
Everybody is talking about cleansing,
but everyone is afraid of the cleansing lotion.

– Professor Remi Raji, Facebook, October 9, 2016

Silence is not always golden. Sometimes you just run out of things to say. Sometimes the ways of the world simply garrot your voice box. It is what it is. So, the soul visited the seaside all of last week to get away and to be mute witness to two ugly, mean hurricanes, raging demons foaming in the mouth. Hurricane Matthew. Hurricane Trump. Olokun, goddess of the sea cooks up these hurricanes, and the white man names them. And sitting at the feet of rage-waves, I thought of home. Yea, home was on my mind. I would like to go home. But where is home? Dunno. Sigh.thesea

Hurricane Matthews has disgraced those who took Haiti’s billions and gave her nothing but pie charts and PowerPoint slides. Hurricane Trump is racing through America’s catacombs and wreaking major havoc on her anxieties and hypocrisy. This one is for the history books. The Lord is good, the (white) women of America may have finally stopped Hurricane Trump, yes, Trump the bully, Trump the bigot, and Trump the racist. Make no mistake, America reveres her (white) goddesses. Trump found out the following last week: You can make monkey noises at black men and women, you can body shame Mexicans and call their men rapists and America will look you in the eyes and make polite noises, you can call all Muslims terrorists and berate their women. Just don’t defile (white) women, for if you do, you will hear from (white) America. Yup. Trump found out last week.

It is a crying shame; those elected leaders and citizens of stature who were prepared to make a racist and misogynistic buffoon president of the greatest country on earth finally rose in rage and shut down his dream – and our nightmare. Trump should have asked Bill Cosby, his pal in crime (yes, sexual assault is a crime), about sexual assault. Trump has assured us that he is guilty of sexual assault, he should be in the big house, not in the White House. (White) America will make sure of that. Good for them. He scared them. In his new (white) victims, they saw their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. And justice may finally knock on Trump’s gilded doors. This is America, their America, says John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo.

Where were the calls for Trump to step down on account of his well documented bigotry? Where was the outrage? Certainly not at today’s decibel level. I am happy for Hillary Clinton, though. I am #TeamHillary to the very end. She has earned my vote and that of America. In any case, I will never vote for the Republican Party in a partisan race; the Republican party has no place in her heart and soul for people that look like me. But then, the Democratic party has grown to take my loyalty for granted. What has the party done for people of color lately? We must ask these questions. Was it not Bill Clinton that enacted anti-crime laws that prescribed triply harsher drug penalties for poor black youth compared to their richer white counterparts? Was it not Bill Clinton that refused to do anything about the Rwandan genocide because he did not see how it was America’s business? And what has Obama done for Black folks and Africa lately? We may not have anywhere to go, but that does not mean we are fools.

Oh Haiti. Who cares about Haiti? Many do. It is just not obvious. Billions of aid dollars have been sunk in Haiti and it is still so poor, it does not qualify to be a third world nation. Billions of dollars sunk into Haiti that have ended up in the deep greedy pockets of NGOs, an equal opportunity pantheon of the greedy feeding fat on the poor and the vulnerable. If all the billions stolen by NGOs and multinationals were simply dropped on Haitians from airplanes, each Haitian would be a millionaire today. Ditto the IDP camps of Nigeria.

There is a war on the poor and dispossessed everywhere. Come and see America; the poor are locked up in neighborhoods guarded by liquor stores, fast food joints, pawn shops and pay day loan sharks. And with the police, it is a turkey shoot of beautiful people whose only crime is to be black men. Where are intellectuals of color? They are writing pretty books and long essays on injustice from deep within lush summer homes in Martha’s Vineyard. This dispensation has exposed the intellectual rot and hypocrisy within the temples of intellectuals of color. There is a wide sea-gulf between the elite and the poor, fueled by arrogance and ignorance.

Nigeria. Home. There is no need to talk about home anymore. Home is Nigeria. Or is it? And the poet said, prepare for dark days ahead. Dark days are here. There is a picture of a door to a judge’s home torn down by a uniformed mob in the name of fighting corruption. This is a democracy they say. Why is the DSS arresting judges, why? Where is the outrage? Thosepretending to lead Nigeria who have properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Dubai and elsewhere, those who murdered and buried almost 400 Shiites, 400 human beings, 400 Nigerians, with absolutely no consequences, those who feted a Nobel Prize laureate to a $500,000 dinner, are the ones leading this assault on the judiciary and on the opposition in the name of fighting corruption. And we are all silent. Yes, Professor Wole Soyinka, the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. The man has died in all of us. ALL of us.

Sometimes, you just have to be silent because talk is cheap. Sometimes this Diasporan thinks if you can’t do anything to help those trapped in the land you fled from, just shut up and walk away. I should walk away. In any case those who have voices have walked away. They are writing books about poverty disease and deprivation, they are fighting over “literary prizes”, crying louder than the bereaved and worrying about the oppressed of other nations, fighting over definitions of feminism even as they beat up their house help for chilling the red wine (“It should be at room temperature, STUPID WOMAN!”). And yes some learned ones, some writers are defending this outrage. Yes, some are defending this outrage. As in America, this has exposed the greed, intellectual rot and hypocrisy within the temples of Nigerian intellectuals. There is a wide sea-gulf between the elite and the poor, fueled by arrogance and ignorance. Trust me, this will not end well. Why are things the way they are? We don’t know. Or we know. But we are afraid of the answers. Let it not be said that we are children of a lesser god.

Do not ask me what I think. I have said enough. I have said that in Nigeria, thieves are fighting thieves, cheered on by their intellectual hirelings. There is no rule of law, none, nothing but hypocrisy and thuggery. Impunity is the word that fills me with rage and sadness. This is sad. I have said that there clearly is no difference in substance between the APC and the PDP, they are all boll weevils and termites with strong jaws eating up what’s left of our country. Where are those voices that gave Nigerians this hell? Where are they? They should speak up and stop this nightmare. No one is building structures and institutions, no one, Buhari’s regime is too inept, too clueless to care. My heart goes out to the young; to have to stand by helplessly and watch your present and future eaten up by the thug-elders, is worse than anything I can remember.

Someday perhaps, there will be a group of dreamers and doers who want to really help. Until then, talking and talking and talking about these things does not really make anyone feel better. Besides, I am no longer there. Those who really feel this hurt at home must lead the way and tell us how we can help. Where is home? I honestly don’t know. Hurricanes roam the earth and you might as well sit where you are until it all blows over. I have said my own.

And oh, here, click on this link below, here  is important work about South Africa. It is a photo essay about white privilege in South Africa. Political correctness makes the artist look sideways at the truth. There is white privilege in South Africa, yes, but this is now being subsumed by class privilege. The poor blacks of South Africa are going through hell in the hands of the black and white middle and upper middle class elite. Yep, it is beyond a black-white binary though. Mix it up with class and you get really fed up with South Africa. Where are Black Africa’s voices? They are cowering in the cafes of Europe and North America, navel gazing and self-medicating at book readings with free cheese and red wine. Nice pictures, though.

http://www.huckmagazine.com/art-and-culture/photography-2/photographer-deconstructing-white-privilege-south-africa/

 

 

Guest Blog Post by Bolaji Olatunde – Dear contemporary African reader: Contemporary African writers owe you an apology for not being white enough

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This is a response, for the most part, to a thought-provoking essay titled Dear Contemporary African Writer, We Read; We Don’t Just Read You, written by Chisom Nlebedum.

In his essay, Nlebedum bemoans the fact that many young African readers know little or nothing about many other contemporary African writers, and adds that this should not “be misconstrued ‘as another “Africans do not read episode’, for this is already a ludicrous cliché.” Africans may read, but fiction has no place on their list of priorities, especially African fiction.

We must first establish that there are different categories of young Africans—Nlebedum seems to refer to the under “under twenty” category, and seems to have a bias for fiction writers in his criticism. I am Nigerian, and I live and work in Nigeria. I class myself way above the “under twenty” category. Apart from being an aspiring writer myself, I have a daytime job which places me in an environment where I have for colleagues at least forty well-educated Africans of about the same demography as mine, some older, some younger. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that reading fiction has no place in their lives. “Are you preparing for yet another professional exam? You never tire to do exam?” colleagues say to me when I’m seen reading a novel before the beginning, or after the end of the business day—among many Nigerians, one is expected to read only when one is preparing for exams. When a few of them stumble on fiction novels on my person at any given time, all I get are unbelieving looks, mixed with the looks of pity one would give a drug addict well down on the path to perdition.

Nlebedum remarks in his essay that he teaches “kids in Lekki, some of whom have devoured all the series of The Diary of The Wimpy Kid, Harry Porter, The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson’s series but who are strangers to the names and works of Chimamanda Adichie, Seffi Attah, Chika Unigwe, Igoni Barret, Helon Habila, Tope Folarin. This may surprise many keen watchers of the African/Nigerian literary scene who consider these names to be the leading lights of contemporary African literature, but it does not surprise me. I was privileged to attend a secondary school with children whose parents dwelt in Lekki-type places; they shared in that widespread Nigerian mindset that all things local are inferior. As a youth in Nigeria in the late 1980s and 1990s, I clearly recall disparaging remarks made by classmates and friends about the African literature we were made to study in school at the time. “The works of Achebe and Soyinka,” one of my pals from a well-heeled home snorted one time. They wanted to read the exotic works of Sidney Sheldon, the thrillers of Fredrick Forsythe, the books by Enid Blyton and James Hadley Chase. The novels about African themes like Things Fall Apart, The Lion and The Jewel and A Grain of Wheat were a bore—we knew all they were talking about; they were too familiar, they were too local. They grudgingly accepted thrillers under the popular Pacesetters imprint, but they were quick to state that they were not as good as the Nick Carter thrillers from America. When I was in the university, I remember criticizing a classmate of mine about his always reading thick western “bestsellers.” His response stays clearly with me to this day: “You want me to go and be reading Things Fall Apart?” We wanted to read stuff written by white folks, the real owners of the English language—some parents gave that mindset the adequate boost by flooding their homes with only such foreign books; my colleagues do the same for their children now. I was spared of this fate, because I had a relatively healthy mix at home. Sometime in 2015, in the company of friends, I was in the sitting room of a Nigerian friend, who resides in Lekki, whose two-year old son found himself instinctively jigging to a television advert for some product or the other, and the theme song was filled with heavy African drum percussion. His embarrassed father turned to us, his visitors, and said jokingly, “I’ve failed as a parent.” Behind this humorous declaration is an undeniable truth—the young African of today has been taught to hate his own heritage and culture, or make it second place to western culture, either consciously, or on a subliminal level.

In the light of this, one is forced to draw the conclusion that the best fate that can befall a contemporary African writer before he or she may find favour with the young African audience, the Lekki-type demography, is to become white, like Furo Wariboko in Igoni Barrett’s Blackass. Only then, will the Lekki-type demography find you worthy of their respect, and their children’s reading time. The overwhelming role of pigmentocracy in our national lives does not just apply to Africa/Nigeria’s economic sphere where expatriates are accorded greater wages and regard than their local counterparts with even better qualifications, it also extends to our cultural makeup. This is why a young Nigerian will read with glee the Harry Porter books, with due encouragement from the Lekki-type parent, who will do all in their power to discourage their child from reading a book about Harry Porter’s African wizard counterpart, written by a contemporary African writer. Everyone knows that a white teenage wizard is much better than an African wizard, the type that the Lekki-type parent takes their children to see the evangelical pastor cast and bind every weekend. Harry Porter is white, like Jesus, and is guaranteed a place in Heaven. The African wizard, that black being, is Satan’s sure companion in Hell in the afterlife.

I do not attempt to discourage the African reader’s interaction with literature from outside the continent. I owe a lot of knowledge to such interaction. For instance, it was in my reading of African American literature I first came to the knowledge of the racist history of the use of the word “boy” to describe black adult males, and of course, its related use in colonial Africa by the European colonialists who regarded the African male, irrespective of age, as one who could never grow out of a child-like state of mind. The post-colonial education Nigerians receive does not eliminate such in-built, unwitting self-hatred. It’s not uncommon to find African intellectuals and civil servants refer to their colleagues and subordinates as “boy” or “my boy,” which is unexpected from folks who should know better. If foreign literature will redress this, we should encourage it, but not to the detriment of our local content.

Nlebedum raises the question: “Who really are the people reading you, dear contemporary African writer?” The question is thrown up by the unavailability of the print editions of the works of these young African writers in bookshops. I would posit that a few devotees, such as myself, and I am sure there are a good number around the continent and in the diaspora, go all out to hunt for these new works. I’m not fond of e-readers, so I do as much as I can to get a hold of the print edition of books. I can sympathise a bit with his dilemma—I recall roaming many bookshops in Abuja before I got a copy of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun in 2010. However, in due course, I identified a few “watering holes”—bookshops—where I spend a great deal of time selecting works by African writers and you can be sure to always discover a new exciting work—it’s not often a cheap hobby. Some of the books can be rather expensive.

The major reason why many of these books are not available in print is that publishing houses in Nigeria are just as practical as businesses anywhere in the world should be—why risk mass producing products that few will buy? It is a matter of simple economics—no demand, no supply, or little demand, little supply. Many readers won’t buy those books, not because they aren’t good, but because they dwell on themes that are too familiar, and they aren’t written by white people, about exotic places that the buyer may never visit, or intends to migrate to and leave, forever, this place called Africa. The Afropolitan writers and their works find better favour with African publishers and the Lekki-type demography for a good reason—they have left the godforsaken continent and gone on to live, study and work in those exotic white places. But, oh well, you can take the African out of Africa, but the African can never write anything as good as Harry Porter, or The Hunger Games.

These contemporary African writers’ works are available on every kind of e-reader you can mention, but they won’t be bought or read by the the Lekki-type parent, who can supply their children with e-readers of various forms, but will not contaminate their children with local African perspectives; it will not help the children prepare well for their insulated journeys to Harvard and Oxford.

Nlebedum states that a new direction of writing by African writers is necessary, works that show that “Africa has evolved, and is now an Africa where we seek equality between the man and the woman; an Africa where the minority and there rights should be protected; an Africa where electorates have discovered the pettiness of their politicians; an Africa that will stand and stands in judgment against those who take sides with the powerful against the powerless.” I must express surprise that as a teacher of literature, Nlebedum is not aware that African writers, the “old school” and the contemporary ones, have been writing about these themes for decades. Recent examples from contemporary African writers are Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Oil Cemetery by May Ifeoma Nwoye, Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi, The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician by Tendai Huchu—the list goes on and on. These books ARE available in Lagos—the question is, how dedicated is a prospective reader to the task of finding them? There are tonnes of African novels which explore these themes. As a teacher himself, Nlebedum is not entirely blameless if his students are unaware of contemporary African writers, just as are many African literary scholars who think the only writers worthy of note are those of the 1960s and the contemporary ones canonized by the West, and they are made to sit in judgment every now and then at the NLNG literary prize. Contemporary African writers, he prescribes, should jettison “tales of witches and wizards, of evil powers in high places” but I am very sure that many of Nlebedum’s students, and maybe himself, would give stamps of approval to the works of Stephen King. After all, white horror, is better, more decent, than black/African horror.

Nlebedum complains “of books hurriedly written and printed by hungry writers who are grossly uninformed and are yet to come to terms with the rules of the English grammar.” The aspiring African writers who produce these books have to wage different battles on several fronts. The first front is the traditional publisher who will only publish writers and their works which have been blessed by the West. Not long ago, a popular Nigerian imprint asked for submissions from writers. Months later, the publisher complained that the submissions were filled with grammatical errors, and they all submissions were rejected. If Amos Tutola’s publisher had been so “grammatically-correct”, the magic of his stories would have been lost, forever. “Grammatical errors in a manuscript? No, can’t publish,” says the African publisher. The African writer must not have knowledge that is beyond his or her ken; the western writer knows it all and must be emulated. One would think that editors were invented for a particular reason, or perhaps editing is just too much work.

Writers have to make ends meet too. Having our manuscripts rejected by the continent’s traditional publishers means we have to seek funds to self-publish—anyone burdened with an unpublished manuscript for any length of time can probably identify with this. Waiting around for a gate keeper whose decisions are driven by the West won’t help to put food on the table. Yes, it is important to ensure quality is produced, but a writer doubling as the editor, the publisher and distributor of his or her work may not be a good idea. I often relate my own experience when, filled with excitement and zest, I took the manuscript of my first novel to the expansive, air-conditioned offices of a major Ibadan-based publisher. I was told, by the chief editor, without opening a page of the manuscript and with a sympathetic smile on his face that I would have to bear the entire cost of publication of the novel. However, if I would be willing to write a textbook on accounting—the source of my daily bread—for use by either secondary schools or universities, they would publish that one gratis, without delay. My excitement waned considerably immediately after that meeting.

I often watch with fascination, and inner pride, my younger relatives, become so enamoured of music produced by homegrown, home-based young Nigerian musicians. They pay attention to the gossip, the fashion trends among these music stars, word about which musician is sleeping with whom. The last time we had this level of explosion in that cultural scene was in the 1980s, when we wanted to know why Mike Okri was still hopping in and out of taxis despite having monster hits, when we bought and read Prime People and Vintage People, and wanted to know Charlie Boy’s latest scandal. Then the 1990s rolled in, and American style hip-hop took over. Folks who had no idea what Tupac and Biggie Smalls were talking about became fans of the genre because our music stars stopped producing major stuff, and when they did, the recordings were of poor quality. I believe African literature will experience the same phase in due course. In the 1980s, things that the Achebes, the Soyinkas, the J.P. Clarks did made the front pages of newspapers—they had rock star personas. The closest to that today is Chimamanda Adichie. The real or perceived present poor state of the country’s educational system may cause one to doubt that we’ll soon have fiction writers of such statures dominating pop culture headlines. You don’t need much education to get into the groove of contemporary Nigerian Afrobeats, but you need it to read through a novel. As a stakeholder though, one must be optimistic that the time of African literature to explode like the pop music scene will arrive soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

folarin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I think I cried, but I’m not sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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