Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Nigeria is not a country: Of ogbono, snails, sex, eccles, and hell’s longing

Yemisi, I have saved the best words for you. For you…

My son is the reason behind my forthcoming book Longthroat Memoirs. Even if I loved stories before he arrived, I had no strong motivation to collect them and examine them in the context of food. He woke me up at 5am to cook breakfast and kept me on my feet all day cooking. I angry, exhausted, depressed and raging against everything. The necessity of cooking day in day out produced two and a half years of writing for a Nigerian newspaper on food and a faltering blog on food. And it also produced Longthroat Memoirs.

– Yemisi Aribisala (November 7, 2015), in the essay, Mother Hunger

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There are many reasons why you must read The Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, Yemisi Aribisala’s lovely volume of essays, published by Cassava Republic Press. One: It is a gorgeous book, professionally done, one that proudly adorns my coffee table, Cassava Republic Press exceeded my lofty expectations on this one. Two: Aribisala dispenses with the pretense of narrative through fiction and tells her stories straight. Thus, unburdened with rules, the stories fly out of her fecund mind, lush rivers of thought feeding into the reader’s mind-road. In the process, with muscular essays, she joins thinkers like Chinua Achebe in rejecting the stereotype of the African writer as a mere storyteller, not a thinker. Three: She successfully injects respect into Nigerian cuisine with well-researched pioneer work and taunts the stereotype of Nigerian food as stodgy and unimaginative. Four. The Longthroat Memoirs introduces you to one of Africa’s finest essayists, an erudite thinker who has masterfully surfed the waves of the digital revolution to force feisty and important debates on a breathtaking range of subjects from feminism to the texture of moin-moin.  Compared to worthy compatriots whose books are published in the West, she is relatively unknown. If you don’t write a book published in the West, you are invisible, you have no voice. This sad reality begs the question: Who speaks for Africa? The likes of Aribisala who write for Africans are hidden in plain sight in favor of those who italicize their egusi and twist their words and accents to fit foreign (Western) tastes.

Some of the most important debates on African issues have ensued online thanks to many of Aribisala’s powerful essays. She has, more than virtually any of our writers of stature influenced the trajectory of modern thought within the African literary/intellectual community. She will not be recognized this way, but be defined and limited by the one book she has published. The Longthroat Memoirs is an awesome book, no ifs, no buts about it, but it is only the gorgeous tip of the impressive work Aribisala has been putting out for many years online, starting with Farafina magazine. I have old copies of the now defunct Farafina Magazine, where she was founding editor, that show that Aribisala (Yemisi Ogbe at the time) was defiantly appropriating English as her own. As an example, in her epic essay, Giving it all away in English (Number 6, August 2006, reproduced by Chimurenga in 2015), she wonders impishly: “If we are progressive enough to understand that Jamaicans have made the English Language comfortably theirs in spite of colonization, why haven’t we successfully done the same in Nigeria without condemning those who speak with and accent or make grammatical mistakes to purgatory for the incompetents and erudite?” She was talking about the appropriation of English as an African language many years before it became the burden of a chic debate.

There are more compelling reasons to read The Longthroat Memoirs. Historically African writers have treated food and sex at best as a collective afterthought, but many times as taboo subjects. Reading through African fiction from Achebe to Adichie, one gets the definite sense that African characters rarely eat or have sex, and when they do there are enough apologies to fill the River Limpopo. The single-story narrative of poverty porn hawked by many African writers does not associate Africa with good food and great sex. To hear many of these writers say it, Africa is a land of stick figures, distressed disease-ridden pretend humans leading meaningless lives, stumbling from war to pestilence, gouging on empty air – or the occasional road kill. To be sure, there are delightful exceptions; one of my favorite passages in Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn describes a feast to die for in his bosom friend’s house. He tells the tale with much pride and one marvels at the fusion of friendship and repast.

The good news is that things are changing; a not-too silent revolution is happening among African writers, they are re-tooling the narrative to redefine writing from Africa and to include the sum total of the experiences of the continent’s citizens. In Longthroat Memoirs, Aribisala ups the ante with a cunning and stunning way of writing a memoir that connects the rich dots of humanity from her lived life, to the rest of us. And food (accompanied by notions of sexuality) is the common thread that connect the dots, from ekoki in Calabar to eccles in London. Aribisala talks about herself as if she is talking about food and by the end of this rich volume of essays, you can pretty much piece together much of her life’s journeys, to the extent that she lets you. You sigh in awe as she talks about her life with a near-clinical detachment and then you fall in love with this quietly defiant warrior who is determined to live life on her own terms, regardless. So what is this book about? Many reviewers have called it a book about Nigerian food. It is and it is not. It is like calling Achebe’s Things Fall Apart a book about a simple farmer and his yams. Perhaps we should return to Aribisala’s passion and say that she used food as a delicious basis to permit us a peep into our lives, anxieties and joys and to demonstrate that our varied experiences as human beings are like the many rivers that run through the earth; perhaps they end in the same place, who knows?

Aribisala’s book is a multi-dimensional tour-de-force; we learn about Nigerian regional cooking and cuisine, and we find out that despite its exotic ways and crude, if cute instruments of measurement (who measures ingredients with the precision of empty tins of tomato paste?) it is complex and is governed by rules of science, and art, spirituality, and in some cases superstition. You learn all of this with prose remarkable for its beauty and brilliance. Aribisala is the legendary journalist Peter Pan Enahoro with even more substance. And one remembers Achebe’s brilliant essays in the way she uses food as the palm oil that aids the digestion of life’s lessons. Achebe once stated that he wrote children’s books because the ones from the West were not written for his children. Decades from now scholars will marvel at Aribisala’s prodigy, this warrior who wrote about Nigerian cuisine and culture in a way that has never ever been done before. This is great stuff, As an aside, I can visualize Aribisala teaming up with the itinerant TV personality chef Anthony Michael Bourdain traipsing the great nations that make up Nigeria and tasting the various degrees of ogbono that are out there. Better yet, I would subscribe to an online portal dedicated to her mind. But I digress.

I digress. Back to the book. The Longthroat Memoirs is a hugely ambitious undertaking which serves to prove that Nigeria should be a continent. Yes, Nigeria is a large country and anyone who tries to capture all of Nigeria’s cuisine and its various shades and iterations will die of unresolved dreams. Hell, in my village, you can tell ogbono from clan to clan. You can taste the changing earth and seasons as ogbono, that sauce of the gods, roams from clan to clan.  Starting with Calabar, Aribisala really concentrates on cooking from certain regions largely in the South, including mouth-watering forays into the riverine and Edo speaking regions of Nigeria’s old Midwest. Even at that it is an ambitious undertaking. As Aribisala finds out, Nigeria is a nation of hundreds of little nations.  In the end, she triumphs as she wraps her hands and her head around that complex nation space called Nigeria. Writing with wry humor and intimidating brilliance, the reader learns of everything from meat substitutes to sex. She explores the mystery and myths of the ingredients of soup and sex in Nigeria. She struggles with the definition of Nigerian “soup” until she gives up triumphantly and declares that there is no comparison; there is soup and there is soup. When one calls ogbono soup, a lot gets lost in the translation. Here, soup is an indigenous Nigerian word, it is not English. It is certainly not sauce.

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Aribisala’s passions, heart and soul are firmly rooted in the soil of Nigeria’s ancestral lands, and in soaring prose-poetry she lets her angst rip. Outside of Nigeria she is inconsolable. Here is a poignant definition of exile:

You just can’t buy local chicken in Brixton or Peckham High Street. Not the kind that tastes Nigerian. The plantains are a rip-off. They are not sweet. They are pretenders. The yams are tired and shrunken from travelling so far. There is no fresh afang to be bought, no fresh pumpkin leaf. The ogbono seeds are not first-rate; you can smell rejection on them. (pp 88-89)

Yes, The Longthroat Memoirs is about cooking, life, sex, patriarchy, misogyny, love, loving, ethnic and class distinctions, lust, longing, exile and the nostalgia for home; all those ingredients that go into making what passes for living in Nigeria and elsewhere. From Aribisala’s perspective. It’s all fascinating. And she pulls it off. There are forty-two essays in this volume, if you include the introduction, which is a full-blown essay and an excellent summary of what the book is about. Indeed, the introduction qualifies as a great self-review and enough excuse to buy the book. Scholars will have their hands full deconstructing all that is in these essays, each one is the proverbial dry meat that fills the mouth that will keep a class of inquisitive students entertained and educated.

Each essay deserves its own review. Indeed, this text should be required reading in online multidisciplinary courses at the tertiary level, it is too rich for just leisurely reading. You will fall in love with the essay My Mother, I will Not Eat Rice Today, a wildly hilarious and brilliant deconstruction of social conditions in Nigeria via a little boy’s culinary anxieties. Here, Nigeria comes alive and you do not need pictures to feel and taste the land. It is a great riff on Lagos. And Lagos comes alive, you can feel the breeze strolling across the lagoon. It features also a good recipe for jollof rice and some of Aribisala’s best prose. In Akara and Honey, the prose is so good you might as well be eating every letter of every word and be calling it akara. Sigh. Oh and Aribisala has a recipe for akara that she swears is the perfect therapy for PMS. How? Go and read it! Kings of Umani is a throaty rejection of the ubiquitous Maggi bouillon cube in favor of making stock from scratch.

Letter from Candahar Road is so poignant and funny, one remembers Soyinka narrating how he smuggled bush meat into the West and risking being the first Nobel Laureate to be arrested for poaching. Okro Soup, Georgeous Mucilage is about the many ways to cook okro, mucilaginous things and hints of sex and it also reminds the reader of a time when ships sailed to Nigeria bearing Shackleford Bread. It is about the pull of home and the purgatory that is Babylon.  Longthroat Memoirs, the essay that bears the title of the book, is a lovely ode to the land, jazzy, laconic but still taut with longing. Aribisala recreates the streets of Ibadan with the dexterity of an orange seller peeling oranges with knives fashioned out of empty margarine tins. You must read The Snail Tree, a free-flowing discussion about everything from snails, to sex, to Wainaina Binyavanga with everything thrown in between. It starts out with quiet defiance and quiet force and ends in quiet defiance and quiet force:

I have saved the best words for you. For You. There are places in a woman that a penis will never reach. I have said it. And what I mean to say and don’t feel under any pressure to reiterate, but will say again anyway because I was asked for my opinion, is that sex is overrated. (p 111)

In Fainting at the Sight of an Egg, impish sentences troll the Nigerian condition with deadly accuracy. There are many uses for an egg, we find out, including as a test for virginity and you laugh like a maniac as she lampoons a fridge suffering epileptic power supply. In Sweet Stolen Waters, every sentence is a deliberate work of art communicating something – with flair and attitude. There are all these sentences writhing with energy, turgid from sexual suggestiveness. This book is horny. When Aribisala riffs on plantains, the reader’s loins stir with longing and wonder:

They are luscious and thick and the yellow colour of ripeness burns holes in the retinas. Frying them is sacrilegious; they must be steamed in their skins. When they are removed from their skins they look too good to eat, like beautiful golden rods. Their texture is soft, spreading slightly on the tongue. They’re sweet with hints of treacle, hot all the way into the depths of the stomach, every atom delicious in every ramification. (p 148)

Aribisala loves the land and her seas and she writes about them with such tenderness, it is sometimes heartbreaking. Ogbono is a goddess, and rightfully so, says the essay, A Beautiful Girl Named Ogbono. Only Aribisala can dredge up romantic notions about ogbono soup, who knew? This essay is the most comprehensive study of the effect of first rate palm oil on the quality of ogbono soup. It puts the researchers of Nigeria to shame, they should go burn their degrees. To Cook or Not to Cook reads like a well thought out feminist manifesto, immensely readable and one that one can relate to because it is grounded in the reality and context of life in the ancestral lands of Nigeria. Between Eba and Gari muses on bigotry, ethnic anxieties and the politics of food jokes. Ila Cocoa is pure delicious prose-poetry. Here the recipe is the story. Brilliant. In the prose-poetry of Fish, Soups and Love Potions, one remember the haunting beauty of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.

River Oyono is a smoke-grey cloak animated by a strong wind. It is, in fact, only a small conceited river. It embraces the Atlantic Ocean for a passionate 24 km. Just before the open seas, there is an unusual meeting point of brackish and fresh seawater, creating an environment that provides stunning produce for the markets in Calabar. They say you will find fish there that you will not find anywhere else in the world. (p 275)

Peppered Snails is a stifled climax, the closest Aribisala would allow the reader peek at a love story. Here, Aribisala, is the composite of all those women gathered around a tripod, cooking, laughing and singing songs of the oppressed. Bush cuisine is a delight as we encounter what the white man would call game or venison. Read The Market Place and remember Molara Wood’s enchanting short story, Night Market in Indigo, her book of short stories.

Aribisala probably hates labels but she is an Afropolitan, with eclectic tastes that range from Rex Lawson to Sergei Rachmaninoff. Still the sea draws her near with her mucilaginous tentacles. The trademark superciliousness of the African writer is there in full force. There is the obtuseness of Soyinka: When Aribisala says, “Local olfaction collapses the astringency of smoke into the idea of fresh air, as if that were possible,” one remembers Soyinka’s “Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes” and one chuckles, with great fondness for these weird ones. Yes, the book sometimes comes across as too rich, like too rich soup. Sometimes you feel like you are reading Teju Cole of the fine mind, with the refined senses, of writers of color who have traveled to all these places, eaten all these wondrous things while listening to music that comes out of rare and expensive pianos instead of from empty Fanta bottles. Burdened with a mind on steroids, she overthinks things. Sometimes one just wants to eat, shit and fuck. Why the drama? But then, that could be this reader’s problem, to be a philistine, a peasant autodidact should be a crime.  Yes. Aribisala is aware of her wealth and she flaunts it. The book is an embarrassment of riches, it is not gaudy but everything is in this pot and you wonder what will happen when this pot is exhausted, will you eat again? The photographs are nice but they only made me hungry for more. Collaboration with photographers and graphic artists would have been an even nicer touch. I miss hot links to the various terms and recipes. A digital version is not available, which I find disappointing.

The Longthroat Memoirs is also a conversation about what gets lost in the translation when you express yourself in an alien language, as I have argued elsewhere and ad nauseam. What does the term “fattening room” really mean in Calabar? We may be relying too much on a colonial and racist interpretation and turned a once honored ceremony into a pejorative. Today, post colonialism, the kitchen is the most visible totem of subjugation. Did we have kitchens before the coming of the white man? It is a great question: In my village, there was more clarity in roles between men and women. The men were the hunters and gatherers and all the spoils came home to the women who managed spoils and the household. There was no word for “kitchen.” These days there is a perversion of culture and women and children are the victims. Aribisala sometimes trades in stereotypes, put-downs, and stick figures and after a dozen essays it begins to grate on the reader’s nerves:

The archetypal businessman in Calabar is the civil servant, married with three children, two house-helps, a complicated and dependent extended family, two cars and a racy mistress with a large bottom who owns a small boutique. He closes work at about 4 p.m., and with so much free time on his hands, he would be ungrateful not to carouse in it. He is a devout Presbyterian, goes to church on Sundays, makes love to his wife once a month, visits his mistress once a week and fills the rest of his schedule with slender UniCal girls who have stomachs like chopping boards and skin smooth as processed shea-butter.

The antiquarian fattening rooms where women are still sent to grow love handles and learn the intricacies of how to pamper men’s personalities into that of suckled babies might be on their way out, but that spirit of male entitlement to as many available women and young girls as are willing remains.

Women are indoctrinated from a young age into the mindset that men have all the advantages and, to be truly successful, a woman must somehow attach herself to a successful man, be it brother, husband, uncle, lover or sugar daddy. Enter that necessary artillery among artilleries: cooking. A woman must cook well; very, very well. Sex is a given, but it doesn’t have to be outstanding sex. Sometimes the man wants a docile lover, but there is no compromise when it comes to food. A man will not marry a woman who cannot cook (a true abomination), nor will he emotionally desert a wife who can cook to play with a mistress who can’t (a ridiculous proposition). A suitable wife must be a good cook, attractive, homely, God-fearing and must come with a guarantee that she will bear children. A shrewd mistress must be a great cook; flatter diabolically; keep a scented, relaxed, undemanding second home where foot massages are spontaneously administered; know how to at least pretend some degree of sexual kinkiness; and know how to engage a man for as long as possible by whatever means necessary. (pp 277-278)

The Longthroat Memoirs is a great compilation of a fraction of Aribisala’s essays, most of them from her days at the brainy but ultimately troubled NEXT newspapers where she ran a blog. There is the equivalent of several volumes of books of her works scattered all over the Internet. It is a sign of the times that the enterprising internet-savvy reader can find some of them online (for example, the luscious Fish soup as love potions as well as this excerpt in The Guardian). Chimurenga has a rich archive of her works here that shows the breath-taking range, vision and courage of Aribisala, from an insightful essay on the artist Victor Ehikhamenor, to a review of Adichie’s Americanah. Google searches will find her brilliance scattered all over the place like this essay on Nigeria and the culture of respect. There are good interviews of her (here, here and here) that provide rich insights into this quirky goddess of words. It is sadly ironic that The Longthroat Memoirs will probably be used to define Aribisala’s contributions to writing. That would be a huge disservice to her prodigy and industry, she is easily one of Africa’s most quietly influential thinkers.

This brings me to my pet peeve: The unintended effect of using the book as the sole yardstick of writing is to severely underestimate the worth of the African writer.  When hard print was the main medium of literary expression (as in books), it was appropriate to use the book as the sole determinant of a writer’s output. In the 21st century, in the age of that infinite canvas called the Internet, this yardstick is a travesty and especially unjust to African writers who are increasingly turning to the Internet for relief from mediocre or non-existent publishing industries. Aribisala should be remembered in writing history as the total sum of her works as compiled (albeit haphazardly) on the Internet. When NEXT newspapers folded, the proprietor simply shut down the website and writers like Aribisala were left with nothing but drafts as evidence of work done over a period of several years. The Longthroat Memoirs, to the extent that it beautifully recreates those essays is perhaps the best evidence that at least as an archival tool, the death of the book is a tad exaggerated. Still, I dream of an online library where there will be entire digital books like The Longthroat Memoirs with hot links to explain stuff, with forums for debates on the several issues that Aribisala so coyly throws up. Readers would happily pay for the service. I will gladly pay. Yup, to be at the table listening to this eclectic, quirky thinker from Hades’ lascivious kitchen, cerebral dominatrix, talk about snails, mucilage and love in one breath, and on her own terms, coolly indifferent to your pressing needs, knowing that she will feed you and love you in time, on her own terms. Now, that is a book to die for. A reader can only dream.

Nigeria on my mind: Who will bell this cat?

Nigeria is on my mind. We are living in interesting times. Many years from now, historians will agree that one of the best things to ever happen to Nigeria was the election of Muhammadu Buhari as president. It is hard to find a more corrupt and hypocritical government than Buhari’s in the history of Nigeria; indeed there is a collective national embarrassment at the thought that a malignant blight rules Nigeria. 

This is not what Nigerians hoped for and asked for. They got duped by the APC and her PhD vuvuzelas. They in turn got duped by Buhari and now they are fighting mad. Interesting.

Let it be said that in Buhari Nigerians have learned a bitter lesson. Some would say that is wishful thinking given the lusty eagerness with which Nigerians are now cheering on the sweet words of the nouveau anti-Buharists, the loud-mouthed broken GPS vuvuzelas that landed our national lorry in the valley of despair and hopelessness.

So those that told us Buhari would be the best thing to happen to Nigeria since jollof rice are now up in arms and will not be consoled. Some are even on the ground in Nigeria begging to be mauled and arrested. Wonderful. These are the same people who worked overtime to blackmail, berate and shut up those of us who refused to drink the burukutu served up by the APC.

I salute these new social justice warriors for carrying my mantle of real change in Nigeria, especially my friends who dubbed me a broken record, for they are now the broken record, singing the same song I have been belting out every day for the past several years. There is a lesson there: If you stand up and speak the truth of your pain long enough, someone will come along to carry your burden. It still shakes me to my foundations that these new wailers, curators of Nigeria’s past bloody history truly believed that given our past, their judgment to hand over Nigeria to Buhari and his acolytes was appropriate.

To be fair, there have been some true warriors for justice, equity and transparency in Nigeria, many of them young folks. The couple of concessions Buhari’s inept and clueless government has made has been due to the hard work of a few studying what little data is out there and loudly sharing their objective critiques. However, true accountability remains a real problem. We have nothing but opinions, few people are being held accountable.

No nation can survive without accountability and robust structures of governance. Our broken, dying, moribund institutions are merely symptoms of the breakdown in structures and accountability. Who will bell the cat? I daresay, not these new wailers. We have heard their songs before. And the beat goes on.

We may end up ignoring history again and avoiding this lesson but know this: Buhari’s ascension to the throne of shame, his election has demystified him, all politicians, and all intellectuals (including writers) and exposed virtually all of us as self-serving rent-seekers. We are living in interesting times and one prays that our great country is greater than the machinations of the men that have held her hostage since Independence. Again, there is the hope that Nigerians have learned their lessons from this epic mistake that is the Buhari presidency; that they have carefully documented why, how and when we got to this mess. And more importantly who led us into this national quagmire.

Hope is fleeting though, perhaps a mirage. I cannot get over this tragicomedy: Those that led us into this mess, those that carefully drove our national truck into this mess, our PhD talking heads are now the ones gleefully pointing out all the potholes that they drove us into – to loud applause from the abused. Why are victims cheering their abductors? This dysfunction is what the PhDs call the Stockholm syndrome, a perverse love affair with one’s jailers and abusers.

Nigerians have been abused for too long, and I say to them: You must gain back your self-esteem. Forgive those who drove you into this hell but stay away from them. They will hurt you again. Not on purpose perhaps, but simply because they are clueless. Outside of their pretty and seductive words, they have never supervised even a dog in their lifetime, so they have no idea what it would take to run a complex country like Nigeria. You need new heroes. In fact, believe it or not, many of you cheering them on may be smarter and more experienced than their glib words may suggest. You may be the hero you seek.

Nigerians have gotten bad advice from many talking heads, the vast majority of whom live in the Diaspora and seem to have no other qualification for national service other than that they live abroad. Nigeria has suffered. It is not their fault but Nigerians seem to be suffering from a national inferiority complex. All it takes for anyone to be taken seriously these days is to write about Nigeria’s problems from abroad, abroad as in Europe and North America. Indeed it is easy to prove that virtually all the hare-brained ideas that Buhari’s hapless regime attempted to implement came from alleged thinkers who live abroad. People with PhDs abroad who would not qualify for a 3-minute slot in a community forum in their places of abode are experts on governance in Nigeria. They demand and obtain access to the highest places of the land and proceed to try to govern armed with nothing but shallow platitudes. It is easy. I have gotten access to strange and powerful places in Nigeria because someone simply said, “This is Ikhide, he is from America!” These talking heads have every right to their personal opinions but the time for bullshit is past tense.

We know now that slick pie charts and PowerPoint slides are inappropriate tools of governance. Talk is cheap. We are lazy, let’s just be honest, we are. Our laziness will kill off our country. Consider this a call to action, we must kill off our communal laziness in order to save Nigeria. The time is now for structural reform. It is hard work, but we have no choice. It is time to end this culture that has turned a once-great country into a space for sloth and graft.

At some point it will become obvious that we cannot continue to live like this. This is a national crisis. Nigeria as it is currently constituted is a failed project, a broken lorry that needs a new engine and a brand new set of wheels. The center is too powerful. It is time to negotiate the terms of Nigeria’s existence. It is counterintuitive but this needs to be said: Be wary of those who trot out the “One Nigeria” mantra and accuse you of “tribalism” once you begin to question the leaky, shaky, sketchy assumptions upon which Nigeria shivers. They are more than likely the real agents of nepotism using cute cloying words to protect the status quo. They feed fat from the status quo and any attempt to look at new ways of doing business threatens them and their agenda. All politics is local, Nigeria is a country of hundreds of nations; it stands to reason therefore that all power should devolve to the local. The federal government as is presently constituted is an ancient relic from ancient colonial times, it is in the wrong business and it needs to go.

Look around you. The people asking you to be patriots are hypocrites. They do not believe in your schools, your hospitals, your roads, your safety, security and welfare. That is why their families are abroad enjoying these things while they rule over you with the mere force of their empty words. Perhaps we need to admit that we are incapable of governing ourselves. My generation and older have failed the nation, no ifs, no buts about it, we have created lovely spaces for ourselves from which we pontificate and excite the disenfranchised. Worse, we are raising a generation of young leaders that threaten to be worse than us – they are narcissistic, self-serving and thoroughly dishonest – and poorly educated to boot. This army of locusts you will find on social media grabbing adoring followers like honey does flies. I despair that this cycle is vicious. I honestly do. But I am not there. At some point, those that are on the ground will detruthcide, enough is enough and rise up and do what they must do to secure their present and their future from rent-seekers. It is the only way out. Who will bell the cat?

Good night.

And yes, speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.

Flora Nwapa and the house that Onyeka Nwelue built for her

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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!

Facebook Nation (For Izuma)

I come from a land that has streets with no names. Our people did not name the streets of our village because they saw the coming of smartphones, Google, e-mail and Facebook and whatnot.

Well, the little path that goes from my father’s village to my mother’s village is called the little path. Was. The little path is no more. My father’s father was buried by the path half way to my mother’s people. He is no longer buried there. A government thief built an ugly mansion over his bones. In the land of my ancestors, people don’t venture far from the earth. There are no mortuaries, when they die they practically fall into their graves themselves. We are simple people; it is complicated.

I have ventured far, very far from home. When I left home, no Facebook messages charted my way out of Africa into America’s issues. My parents put me inside this capsule to somewhere and hoped that someday I would be back. I am still here in America. I am not going back soon.

Today, I stare at the remains of winter in America; earth, frosting on chocolate cake. After all these moons, alien images and clichés stick to me, white on rice. Nothing stays the same. Not in America. The changes make me dizzy and I obsess non-stop about the way things used to be.

Here in my part of America, our drugstore no longer has human cashiers. The owners remodeled the store, and replaced humans with machines that talk to you. You walk up to a machine, scan your goods, pay and leave. It is very disconcerting; I keep looking for humans to return, I actually miss them. I know now that I love people and I cannot shake this cold unfeeling nothingness I get from interacting with a machine that proves its indifference with faux warmth.

Don’t get me wrong, I am high on the possibilities and the opportunities riding on the strong backs of these new and emerging technologies, but I do wonder now if there are downsides to all of this. The world is becoming more and more shaped by a few and powerful; the cognitive elite. We struggle daily to deal with and adapt to the awesome force of new technologies and the new billionaire dictators that built them.

Life is war. We were all born into a war that we did not ask for. And people write about our world; sometimes it is mostly gory. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Achebe, they belonged to a certain era when one had no choice but to concentrate all of one’s creative passions on one medium of expression – the book.

I read a lot of books, mostly about the condition we find ourselves as people of color in a white man’s world. It is a shame that we are talking about books because in my clan we are steeped in the oral tradition. Some of the world’s greatest “books” have been “read” to us in song by our ancestors. My mother, Izuma is one of the world’s greatest living poets; she has not written a lick. She would be great on YouTube. She would at least help to preserve one of our dying languages.

On Facebook, walls are colorful wrappers wound tightly around a billion new municipalities of ME. Facebook is falling leaves, hearts fluttering, forlorn, drying on yesterday’s clothes lines. People are waving hasty goodbyes out the windows of indifferent relationships. It is complicated. Life goes on. There are no nations as we remember them.Facebook. The new frontier has edged into our consciousness. Africa. We fled her angry windows for Facebook Nation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is not short: This life as haiku

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haiku