A. Igoni Barrett, love, power, stories, living books, and all that jazz

“There are other human experiences and emotions to write about beside anger. Poems are not only for gunning, for other people, no matter how pernicious they may be. Anger is a tiny bit of human existence and should never be over-orchestrated. I am very suspicious of ‘Protest Poetry’. Poetry can be redemptive without being a banal protest; without exuding forced righteousness. Shrillness cheapens poems. A nation that demands that the entirety of its poetry should only address socio-political ills must be delusional, hysterical, and uninhabitable. A poet should not only be wracked with the meanness of history.”

– Uche Nduka in an interview with Uche Peter Umez

Igoni Barrett’s Love is Power, or Something Like That is a good, albeit frustrating read, those who love good writing will enjoy the power, intellect and industry that Barrett brings to this collection of nine tales. The Kindle copy is published by Graywolf Press, and the hard copy by Farafina Publishers. You should read the stories, if you’ve not already read them elsewhere online; Barrett displays great range in the writing. He is a powerful writer, and it shows in the stories, well it mostly does, for even with his immense talents and skills, this is a frustrating book. If the stories look familiar to some readers, it is because the book is really an archive of works previously published online. This is becoming a pattern with new writing – it portends the future of the book. The lot of the artist in the 21st century is to endure the book as a museum. Indeed it is the case that a frugal and enterprising reader could probably cobble these stories together free off of the Internet by simply trolling the Internet. I loved that the stories were well edited, some would say over-edited, perhaps to broaden the buying market to the West where the money is. Still I found a few editing issues. I wouldn’t give the publishers much credit for the editing quality since they were previously published by online journals that pride themselves on high publishing standards.

It is interesting, reading through the numerous blurbs in the book by many writers (Teju Cole, Binyavanga Wainaina, Doreen Baingana, Helon Habila, Michela Wrong, etc.) they speak mostly of Barrett as a writer of great talent and skills, rather than to the contents of the book. This is appropriate; they are on to something. As I often argue, it is unfair to judge today’s African writers solely on the output of their books. Chinua Achebe’s generation had only the book as the canvas for their literary output. Today’s generation is suffering an embarrassment of riches and a cruel paradox: They are doing great work in the new frontier – the Internet, that publisher of choice for young African writers – struggling with the reality and notion – that to be taken seriously as a writer one must have published a book – any book. For writers in Africa faced with a publishing industry that is at best mediocre, this is a tragedy. They are being judged by circumstances beyond their control. Love is Power or Something Like That is a good collection of stories but it does not even begin to light a candle to Barrett’s brilliance, innovation and leadership in telling the stories of Africa on the Internet. That is a shame, for when the history of online writing is told, at least with respect to African writing, Barrett’s name deserves to be up there with all the other digital warriors too numerous to mention that have ensured that Africa is undergoing a renaissance in literature.

So, let’s talk about the book. I have said it is an uneven book in terms of the quality of the stories, stories that stay with me because they are unrelenting in their sadness and despair. The stories bathe the reader with detailed vivid, disturbing imagination. Desolation, despair and mind-numbing suffering are everywhere. You get used to reading stuff like this:

The bathroom was small, low-ceilinged, and stank of mildew. A colony of chitinous creatures thrived in the wet earth underneath the metal bathtub. She glanced around out of habit to see if any cockroaches had ignored the daylight signal to return to their hiding places, but in the dim lighting, her eyesight failed her.

Barrett, A. Igoni (2013-05-07). Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories (Kindle Locations 73-75). Graywolf Press. Kindle Edition.

What strikes the reader is how Barrett expertly documents the intellectual and spiritual emptiness of life in contemporary Nigeria. Nigeria comes across as one vast farce, filled with suffering, incompetence and mediocre thinking. When the reader comes across signs of deep introspection in the characters one gasps with relief. The writer is challenged to entertain the reader with more than vacuous pablum. Nigeria hasn’t changed much; it is the same old stuff, the usual anxieties that seem to preoccupy African writers: immigration or the movement to other climes, the many vices of relationships (betrayal, infidelity), state sanctioned brigandage in the Nigerian Police Force. The new Christianity and prosperity churches, corruption, alcoholism, patriarchy, rape, you name it, all of Black Africa’s dysfunctions are collected like drunken deadbeats and made to stand at attention. It is discomfiting. In Barrett’s world, people live like lower animals. That is where his muse inhabits. There are all these asymptotes everywhere; Barrett is always questioning one injustice or the other, smirking at one dysfunction or the other. In unsparing detail. Many of these stories are beyond dark and disturbing. The darkness rushes and rises into a raging crescendo. And you are stunned by the casualness of evil. The Nigeria here is another planet. Dark. These are sad stories. Sometimes though, the love still shines through the savagery. Somehow you are reminded that these are human beings. There is humor, of the wry variety, not enough of it, alas. Barnett takes himself very seriously. Which reminds me, graphic illustrations would have broken the monotony of text.

About the stories, for my money, the piece, The Worst Thing That Happened is probably the most sophisticated short story I have read in recent times. This story alone is worth the price of the book. And yes, it debuted in Guernica (here). It contains some of Barrett’s most poignant prose. This is a deeply rich and brilliant conversation about immigration, relationships, the extended family, and fraying ties in a global world. This is brilliant, muscular writing strutting about with quiet dignity. The reader will enjoy cool lines like this one:

A FanYogo carton lay on the road, and strawberry yogurt had leaked out and pooled on her paved frontage, a lurid pink surface dive-bombed by flies. (Kindle Locations 103-104)

In a clever twist, Barrett ties it to another story in the book, Perpetua and GodSpeed, another lovely story marked by disciplined, tightly woven sentences that pounce into a beautiful trot. Here there is a tender reflection on fatherhood and one grows to admire Barrett’s eclectic eye.

Dream Chaser comes across as a dated story about 90’s style Internet scams. I am not sure I would call this a short story, whatever it is, I enjoyed it a bit. It needed more work and sounded somewhat contrived.

The Shape of a Full Circle is is a dizzying goulash of dysfunctions thrown together like empty bottles of alcohol enduring a drunk’s leer. In this story, a son’s love for the mother is unbroken by the hurtful dysfunction the ravages of his mother’s inner darkness. Every dysfunction is here, checked meticulously – alcoholism, an absent father, child abuse, theft, rampaging thugs, a society in decline. It is grossly overdone. And here, the prose comes alive and dies, comes alive and dies, as a beautiful writer is restrained by over-eager editors pulled apart by competing visions – a memorandum versus straight luscious writing. By the way, rats are everywhere in Barrett’s stories. Barett can paint the savagery, brutality, despair and helplessness from the incompetence that sometimes passes for life. These are disturbing tales of alcoholism and child neglect and abuse. The stories occasionally redeem themselves with lines like this:

Late into the night, while she nibbled the food and sucked the bottle, Daoju Anabraba apologized to her son, over and over again , for the life they were living, for her failure as a mother, for killing his grandfather. Dimié Abrakasa, a veteran of these episodes, kept his silence. Her speech grew slurred and slid farther into her throat; her eyelids sank, struggled, fell. She cried in sleep, the bottle clutched to her chest. She farted, loud and continuous. When her sobs became snores, Dimié Abrakasa rose from his seat at the foot of the bed. He freed the bottle from her grasp and placed it by the wall, where her hand, in the morning, would reach for it. Then he covered her up and blew out the light. (Kindle Locations 856-861)

This story houses some pretty prose poetry. It is as if Barrett is in a trance. Hear him:

The world turned gray, the temperature plummeted, and gusts of wind sprang up. The wind grew stronger and flung dust into the air. A lightning flash split the gloom and a rumble of cascading boulders burst from the skies. Another flash, sulphuric in its intensity— the thunderclap was like a shredding of the heavens. Birds crawled across the sky with panicked cries. There was a lull, everything froze in that instant; and then, with a sound like burning grass, rain fell. The raindrops had not made landfall when a bolt of blue-white lightning, like a forked tongue, streaked the sky, and one of its prongs struck a fleeing swallow. The bird stalled in midflight, then began to tumble earthward as the rain hit the ground. Through sheets of crashing water, pedestrians sprinted for cover. Puddles formed on the sidewalks, then flowed together and rushed for the drains, which brimmed over and poured water onto the road. The road became a river. Car engines drank water, coughed out steam, and died. Both sides of the road— and the sidewalks, too— got jammed. The horn blares of motorists became one long, unbroken blast. (Kindle Locations 536-539)

Beautiful. You wish he would produce prose like this from beginning to end. Hunting for delicacies like this was a perverse hunt, alas. And here he is channeling Ben Okri’s malarial, febrile brilliance. He writes: “The road became a river.” And you remember Ben Okri’s famous opening lines in The Famished Road:

“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.”

In Love is Power, or Something Like That, a troubled policeman tries hard to hold on to his sanity and his family. It is violent and bloody. A man is flogged mercilessly – with a cow’s leg snatched from a butcher’s stall. Still through the nightmarish story, pretty lines peek out of the undergrowth to gawk at the traumatized reader.

He spoke English like one who thought in it. (Kindle Locations 1152-1153)

From the bushes night sounds came: scrabbling noises in the undergrowth, predatory screeches and distressed squeals, the sheesh of breeze in the treetops. (Kindle Locations 1120-1121)

He felt how the warmth of the liquor would spread through his throat, his chest; but his imagination couldn’t replicate the solid weight of good alcohol hitting the belly. He’d made a pledge: no more, not when he was in uniform. Not after the time he broke his wife’s arm in two places and had to accept her judgment when she blamed the reek of his breath. She had laid down her ultimatum from the safety of Mama Adaobi’s doorway, and he, kneeling before her in his underwear, hungover and full of remorse, had given his word. (Kindle Locations 1111-1115)

My Smelling Mouth Problem is a riff on halitosis which turns into social commentary. It was a creative experiment gleefully ambushed by the red ink of editors.

Trophy is a lovely story that plumbs the mystery of the bonds of friendship. Still the sadness seeps through; Nigerians are aliens with “skin the color of rotted wood.” It is a story that rides several dysfunctions – sleepy dead end towns with teachers having sex with their teen wards, teen sex and promiscuity. Wretched lives in various degrees of disarray are examined ad nauseam until the reader screams, “STOP!”

The Little Girl with Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh is a tale of love and forbidden sex. Two young cousins fall in love. A little girl suffers the teen blues. I must say it is at once disturbing and affecting. A disturbing love story. There are nice lines:

The air smelled like rain. (Kindle Location 1583).

Okay, he said, and dug his elbow into the bed, braced his jaw against his fisted hand, stared at her with widened eyes and pouted lips, a playful face that fell away as he continued— since you’re forcing me. I like your eyes. I like the way they light up when you’re happy. I like your legs. I like the way you walk, especially when you’re hurrying, the way you throw your feet, like a child who’s about to fall. I like your nose, and your mouth, and your breath. I like the way your breath smells. Like melted ice cream. Wow, she said in a hushed, wondering voice; and then she adjusted her legs. His hand slid between her thighs. (Kindle Locations 1757-1762)

In A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings racism confronts prejudice and one is left stunned and confused by Barrett’s brilliant but disconcerting literary sleight of hand. The snarkiness is delightful actually, a welcome release from the over-editing of most of the stories. If you want to confirm that Igoni can write, start here:

The engine of Nairobi is fired by cash-crop farming, oiled by tourism, and steered by NGO money. Everywhere you turn in the city you find NGO people, camouflaged by straw hats and safari boots and the skin color of the tourist, white. In the supermarkets (Indian-run), the swanky restaurants (white Kenyan– run), the bus parks, souvenir bazaars, immigration offices (black Kenyan– run), luxurious hotels and safari lodges (British-run), AIDS patients’ wards and spoken-word poetry slams (American-funded), and, in small sightseeing groups, in Kibera, the largest zoo in Africa. (Kindle Locations 2495-2499).

barrett picBarrett is relentless in his message, and one reflects on the fate of women and children in Nigeria and Africa. Men are the aggressors on these pages – and in real life. Women have no chance, their saviors are too busy writing books and setting up NGOs. These are violent, abusive male authority figures accountable to no one. The unfortunate subtext: The real humans are women, children and white folks. The men of Nigeria are savage beasts, sub-humans. It is what it is. Or not. Barrett is the writer as effete judge looking into a troubled society with focused supercilious concentration, many good lines wasted on stereotype and jaded cynicism. Many times the stories gasp for air and energy. Sometimes, the passion rises, and then falls flat, bored lion too lazy to pursue prey. Sometimes Barrett makes a great deal of paying attention to detail, but for what purpose? Barrett’s facility with pidgin English is sadly under-used; where he does, it is compromised by over-editing presumably for a broader audience. The paying readership is in the West. I don’t blame Barrett, but this hurts.

Let me share some random thoughts and use Barrett’s book to annoy my readers with my soapbox rants. We must define the narrative and the terms of engagement with the world more boldly. These books expose us as timid and beholden to a conservative establishment of ancient gatekeepers. When Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in 1986, VS Naipaul in his typical bluster asked: “Has he written anything?” Naipaul was being silly and myopic, Soyinka deserved the prize, not just based on the quality and quantity of his works as evidenced by his books, but based on the sum total of his life as an intellectual and an activist. Today, almost three decades later, it is even more important that African writers be judged on the sum total of their works, not just by their books. In the 21st century, the book as a medium of expression serves brilliant young writers. Barrett is one of the victims. They think as if they are on social media and they are forced to write on paper to get stature. In the process, they are losing readers by the millions. Writers, African writers especially have an opportunity to re-capture the love of good reading and storytelling by going to meet readers where they now congregate, and speaking to them in the language and cadence they understand, cherish and relish – in the call-and-response 3-D world they live in – that community of communities we call the Internet.

We live in a world full of innovative practices in literature, many pioneered by young Africans. The question becomes: Why do brilliant young writers and thinkers feel incomplete until they have stapled their thoughts into books few will read?  In addition to writing books, African writers must actively search for and nurture innovative initiatives, like the Bride Price app, three dimensional e-books, journals and conversations that deploy hot links, illustrations, and the call and response interactions of the reader and the writer. Nothing for me is sadder and more frustrating than visiting writers’ conferences and other meeting places where digital pioneers and leaders spend their time talking about and furtively hawking poorly produced books to a handful of attendees. At these meeting places, discussions about literature online are limited and usually come across as an afterthought. It is clear to me also that prizes like the NLNG Prize are an expensive exercise in mimicry. We don’t need prizes as much as we need supports to build innovative architectures for 21st century African literature.

This is my beef with books: In the 21st century, our creativity is still centered around the book. That paradigm shifted a long time ago. We should be having literary NOT book fairs and festivals. The young should elbow out gerontocracy from scarce resources. In terms of African literature as it exists online, the world is sitting on a goldmine. The answer is not to ignore the youth behind these new forms of storytelling, but to support them. They are the new storytellers. I will say this until I am blue in the face: social media is the publisher of choice for young African writers. Online, the writer does not have to worry about being edited to bland death by over-eager Western editors. The Internet does not ask them to italicize egusi, it laughs at their jokes and doesn’t call them “ethnic.”  In the villages of social media, writers write of sorrows and despair and heartbreak, they also write of musicians who sing pretty songs, about recharge cards, bank alerts and ATMs. When you add their stories to what obtains in books like Love is Power or Something Like That, the reader gets a well rounded  trajectory of African narrative. There are all these opportunities; alas a timid generation of writers bows to laziness, orthodoxy, patriarchy and western literary imperialism.

To be fair, there are several constraints. The Internet is wild untamed territory; poaching and disorder are at an all-time high and writers and publishers are struggling to be heard and make money at the same time. It doesn’t help that there is a dearth of innovation – traditional publishing houses have invested billions of dollars in 20th century publishing architecture. It is tough for them to turn things around on a dime. In a perverse sense, Africa on the other hand has few such constraints, the architecture is not there; however many new publishers hamstring themselves daily by investing in ancient methods. I say to them, look around you, the Internet is the publisher of choice for young African writers. Build an architecture from scratch – and they will flock to you as they flock to Linda Ikeji’s blog and as they flocked to the Bride Price app. The bride price app is perhaps the most brilliant short story ever written by an African in the past decade. The data is there to prove it; there were 12million hits, 7million unique users, and 18million unique social conversations. And one suspects that the author has made money off the app’s global reach. Ask Editi Effiong. He is African. He is not waiting for the West to help him out.

Finally, for me, the most haunting and evocative line in Barrett’s book is in the story A Nairobi Story of Comings and Goings: “I got my things and left.” And then the reader remembers why it spoke to him. Dambudzo Marechera. Helon Habila considers “I got my things and left, the first line in Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, the coolest opening line in African literature I agree. Barrett loves famous opening lines.

Helon Habila: Measuring Time Slowly

Reproduced here for archival purposes. First published in 2007

Helon Habila is one formidable writer – of short stories. With the short story as a canvas, he takes his work ethic, mixes it up with his excellent powers of observation of the human condition and finishes up his patented recipe with a delicious dollop of prose poetry. With the short story Habila struts his stuff, gently telling complex truths with the aid of simple enchanting prose. The reader comes away comforted by this gentle storyteller who weaves evocative tales of mean giants who trample upon the innocent as they build monstrous edifices to tyranny. Habila’s short stories leave you pining for more. Unfortunately, more is not necessarily a novel. The novel as a medium of expression undermines Habila’s strengths and exaggerates his weaknesses. Too bad, because on reading his latest offering Measuring Time, it is easy to forget that Habila is a celebrated writer with formidable literary skills. After all Habila has won both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing. You don’t get those accolades from tepid writing. I personally regard Helon Habila as one of Nigeria’s important writers.

Clearly making the transition from the short story to the novel, in my view, has been problematic for Habila. I have bought both books that he has written – Waiting for an Angel, and Measuring Time. I am yet to finish reading Waiting for an Angel; instead of chapters, it is organized in chunky sections and each section reads like a good short story that yearns to be completed. The book in sum reads like a short story stretched too far. In Habila’s novels, truths that seemed profound in his short stories morph into overwrought banalities buried in way too many words. The analogy that comes to mind when thinking of Habila’s two books is that of an ungainly stretch limousine populated with soulless characters. Some vehicles should not be stretch limousines.

 In Measuring Time, we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of a set of twins – the scholarly but sickly Mamo and the soldier of fortune LaMamo and in so doing we peek through the window of Nigeria’s dwindling lights. Their mother dies during their birth and their father Lamang turns out to be one emotionally absent father. The twins are left to fend for themselves with the aid of extended family members. LaMamo and Mamo are separated early in the book as LaMamo sets forth to join a mercenary group. Mamo stays behind in the village to ruminate on the meaning of history and to write autobiographies, most notably of the Mai or chief of the village of Keti (the Mai is expecting a hagiography but the idealist in Mamo would not oblige). LaMamo and Mamo connect through the distance with long letters from LaMamo. The writing in the letters reminds the reader of the contrived English that seems to be the rage these days thanks to Uzodinma Iweala’s relentless (exasperating, I might add) use of that technique in his books. My humble opinion is that the technique fails to deliver in Habila’s book.

 So why read the book? I must say in Habila’s defense that Measuring Time does grow on the reader, slowly but surely. Reading the book was a worthwhile, albeit frustrating exercise. The book does dip its many toes into too many issues and flees without any serious attempt at in-depth analysis. Habila’s technique seems to be to slyly force the reader to think about these things, and in the process, force the reader to do the research. If that succeeds in awakening a consciousness in the reader, then Habila’s experiment has been successful. This reader will never know. For me, it is hard to focus on the myriad issues in the book, thanks to an avalanche of clichéd, uneven prose and dialogue that zigzags between American conversational English and English as is spoken in Nigeria. Surprisingly, I found the book’s editing to be mediocre, with the occasional word used inappropriately. The wooden prose may have been as a result of over-editing, I’ll never know. My first experience with chapters that are not numbered was with Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn. I did not like it then and I don’t like it that Habila adopts the same technique in his books. Annoying, especially since each chapter reminds me of an unfinished short story.

The reader plodding through Measuring Time feels like a ravished diner picking through a crab for crab meat. Hard work, but there is at least the promise of meat. Every now and then, the crab offers some meat but one wonders if it was worth the effort. My verdict is that the reading was well worth my time. There were gems. My favorite chapter (or section?) is the one named after the book, Measuring Time (p 138) the one that houses my favorite lines: “… and as he waited he measured time in the shadows cast by trees and walls, in the silence between one breath and the next, in the seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and months that add up to form the seasons “ (p 139) Scrumptious. My favorite sentence: “Lamang died in degrees.” (p 215) Neat. There are more gems like that but you really have to plod through the book page by page to enjoy them.

All in all, reading Measuring Time was comforting for this reader who escaped Nigeria many, many moons ago. Where the book was good, one could almost taste Nigeria. My pre-teen daughter Ominira asked me if I liked the book and I said yes. She has the book now and she seems engaged in it; she comes out of nowhere every so often and asks me questions about meanings buried inside the book. She seemed traumatized by a section in the book where the twins kill a dog and rub the dog’s rheum in their eyes. American kids don’t like dog murderers; I’ll have to find Habila and make him pay for my daughter’s psychological counseling. Ominira has been dragging the book all over the place along with her ipod and other accoutrements of American youth. It is a good thing. Our children should read these books. Would I read Habila’s books again? Absolutely, once I find my copy of Waiting for an Angel.

Helon Habila and The Hunt for the African Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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