African Roar 2013: The hunt for the elusive African story

African Roar 2013, the fourth anthology of short stories by Africans, this time, edited by Emmanuel Sigauke, is out. Well, I would say, buy it and read it. It is on Amazon. This challenging and african roar2013ultimately frustrating collection is instructive in many ways, as in the previous editions, it asks more questions about literature and “African” stories than it seems equipped to answer. Sadly, it struggles with an identity crisis from the very first page, beginning with Sigauke’s “Introduction.” The decision to standardize the English of the stories, for instance, using the Queen’s English, is in my view, unfortunate, because it attempts to sanitize a key story of the journey of the story. American English is different from the Queen’s English in more substantive ways than the spelling of “color.”

Reading African Roar 2013 was a chore, for many reasons. These days, the book as a medium for telling the story struggles gamely against the Internet for the attention of the reader. Many readers are finding that the book is a mere distraction, folks want to bury their faces in the best book out there aka the Internet. It doesn’t help that many of the stories in this collection are just plain awful, and give the moniker, “short story” a bad name. There is no reason why they are even stories, they read like carefully typed dry memos issued by humorless civil servants. With a few exceptions, they were patterned along the true, tried and tired formula that has made the term “African writer” a near-pejorative. In these (non)tales there is a morbid fascination, an obsession with the seamy side. The alleged aridity of Africa is on full display here and this reader wonders, what is new? Not much. Many of the stories present like dirty chores, miserable dishes encrusted with stale food. African writers are an unhappy miserable lot, this collection simpers and whines ceaselessly about a wide range of tired issues. Sigauke says it best in his introduction,

Here we have stories dealing with a wide range of issues: street life in South Africa (Bauling), intercultural dating and the problems of exile (Erlwenger ), the past’s grip on family life and legacy (Muqutu), relationship and marital problems in contemporary urban Kenya (Matata), the works of a mysterious puppeteer whose powers bring both excitement and death to a community (Dila), a father’s moving account of how he met his daughter’s mother in the England of the 60s (Nubi), the joys and challenges of post-independent life in Zimbabwe (Mhangami)… African Roar 2013 (Kindle Locations 60-67). StoryTime. Kindle Edition.

In the 21st century, there is something about hard copy print that mummifies the creativity of the writer. It is all so frustrating really,because the writers showcased in this edition are all good writers. Many of them (Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende, bwa Bwesigye, Mike Ekunno, Ola Nubi, etc.) are higly respected digital story tellers who make social media (Facebook and Twitter) rock and hum all day, with raw unfiltered luscious stories. I make bold to say that the best book of African literature today is the Internet, with Facebook and Twitter as star chapters. In this digital space, the writers and their stories are unfiltered and unhinged, and they tell the world about the sum total of the experience of the human being who happens to be an African. It is not always about certain social issues, sometimes, we get laid also. And enjoy the experience. Go to Twitter, it is all there, we love to share. Thank God. In the 21st century, the book is a chore, an annoying distraction. You just want to read something else. Thank heavens for the Internet.

So, what are these stories all about? Home by Alison S. Erlwanger seems to be a conversation about identity, a reminder that many who treat Africa as one monolithic country are themselves Africans. For Home, Africa is an ideology. Why are we drawn to see only a monolithic Africa? Is this our concept of unity or do we yearn for unity and as a result diminish the complexity that is Africa? Home features superfluous unnatural dialogue, a piece suffering from an acute identity crisis – one minute it is a cheesy romance story, the next, it is a shallow discourse wrapped around an unctuous morality tale. Good writing though.

Business as usual by Jayne Bauling is probably the most visionary short story I have read in a long time, using the anxieties and promise of the digital age to explore change and class. The laconic lazy pace of the story is endearing, I love that the writer does not italicize African words. Yup, google it, I like that. The story is a sumptuous feast of pretty writing:

You know these are difficult days because the timber trains have stopped coming along the railway through the old part of town. Grass and weeds cover the tracks. Before, you would hear the blare of a train, sometimes two, most weekdays. The traffic police still trap drivers for not stopping at the crossing. Fana was laid off from one of the sawmills. (Kindle Locations 414-417)

And:

The water in the pothole has dried up, but the bulbuls haven’t forgotten and keep coming back to see. Maybe they itch under their feathers the way my skin is itching in the winter dry. For us it’s cold, and Boo-man is full of snot, but the winter people say this place doesn’t bite your bones the way Jozi does. (Kindle Locations 467-469).

And this:

There’s nearly always someone ready to buy him something. He never asks. I think it’s because he has an interesting look, like a tree that has seen a lot of life, tall and thin and ancient. People talk to him, and he’ll tell his story different ways, with twists and turns to make it longer. I think he makes up some bits. (Kindle Locations 480-483).

Salvation in Odd Places by Aba Amissah Asibon unfortunately defines the stereotype of the African story. It is a dark story, full of promise, but one that lacks suspense. It drifts all over the place like the drifters in the story. But mostly not in a good way. You read pitiful whiny lines like, “He often dreams about his homecoming to a whole guinea fowl…” desolation and despair recorded in various stages of expertise, lice-ridden, dust-covered men and women of Africa carrying sacks of poverty all over the land, afflicted with the curse of aimlessness and a meaningful life. Where is the spirituality? Haven’t our writers said enough? What are we doing about these things other than hoping to be published in reputable/prestigious journals and spaces? What did this story tell me? Well, I know now that “Aba Amissah Asibon is a Ghanaian writer who has had fiction and poetry published in Guernica, The University of Chester’s Flash Magazine, The Sentinel Literary Quarterly and The Kalahari Review. She lives in New York, and is currently working on her debut novel.” It is pretty bad when the blurb about the writer is more interesting than the short story.

The Faces of Fate by Abdulghani Sheikh Hassan drones on and on until blessed sleep saves you from the prattle. This reader honestly has no idea what this story is all about. There is a lot of squalor in it. Makes sense. Hassan “is a humanitarian Aid worker in the biggest refugee camp in the world -Dadaab. Some of his poems are published online by The Kenyan Poets Lounge. He also runs a personal blog: My Voice, My Freedom where he posts poems on Contemporary political, socio-cultural and economic events…” An NGO monarch writes a manifesto on African poverty. The only interesting part of the stories is at the end – where the blurbs about the writers show that they mostly live interesting lives – overseas. These are interesting people who have very little to write about that is interesting.

In Bramble Bushes by Dipita Kwa continues the tales of woe. Inarticulately. Hear Kwa:

For the last one month, one of life’s well-hidden secrets that filled Yandes with anger every morning when he woke up from sleep, was the reminder that nobody knew how it felt like to be dead. How the afterlife felt or looked like, nobody could tell. He once heard that souls of dead men who had made several enemies in this life were chained by their dead enemies and dragged along streets covered with sharp, hot gravel. If that was true then he didn’t have to worry. His greatest enemy was himself. He had been an enemy to his own body and life had failed to restrain him from ruining himself. That was why he had made up his mind to spit on the very face of life. He wanted nothing more to do with living. He wanted to die. (Kindle Locations 987-992).

There is a God. This pity party, this macabre festival of gloom and doom is broken in the middle by an aptly named short story, Transitions, by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende. It is an affecting story about interracial friendship in the dying days of Rhodesia. You start reading and want to weep with joy, Finally! There is atmosphere; you can finally smell aromas and odors that do not belong to Mrs. Poverty. Roasted maize, goat meat, and green vegetables. Green vegetables! In Africa! What a concept. In this story, we learn how integration or assimilation into a white neighborhood heightens alienation, self-doubt and self-loathing. Mhangami can write. Still, this is writing as protest, a preachy editorial, not a short story. Eventually it ends in predictable despair; it is not so much a story, but an essay. If our writers continue like this, readers will never wean themselves of social media. I know I won’t.

A Yoke for Companionship by Andiswa Maqutu made me understand why my son hates reading books, many of them are awful, I would rebel too. Memo to African writers: God loves Africans too. And no, Africa is not a country. SMH.

The Puppets of Maramudhu an attempt at a detective thriller by Dilman Dila shows promise in attempting to showcase the coming of the digital age but it soon fizzles into nothingness. This story is a mess; every conceivable anxiety is thrown in, no suspense, just murder, blood and gore and witchcraft. It is dark and disturbing only because it is inarticulate.

Through the Same Gate by Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire is a faux quirky experiment gone awry; faux in the sense that is about the usual, if you like social commentary that prattles on about a child born out of wedlock and the ensuing marital tensions, AIDS, spouse abuse and whatnot. I am not sure why this piece made it into the collection. And I read it twice. This is a shame because on the Internet, Bwesigwe is one of the finest and most exciting writers I have never met. Evidently something happens to his creative muse when he needs to put his thoughts in a book.

A.B. Doh’s The Spaces In-between starts with a tantalizing promise – that this won’t be all about the usual. Nah. It is. The perils of arranged marriages. Childbirth, stillbirth, blah, blah, blah.  Here it is mildly comical how feminism links Buchi Emecheta and Nurudeen Farah and Ousmane Sembene – in the 21st century. Doh needs to read more contemporary writers. In this blighted story, the Elnathan effect (named after Elnathan John’s much copied literary style) lives. Hear Doh:

You inhale the medicinal smell that permeates the room. Sweat droplets glide down your nose, settling stubbornly in the crevice of the ‘M’ that defines your upper lip. Eyes flutter— unsure whether to hide in the darkness behind the lids or courageously face the altered world before them. Thin arms lie unmoving at each side . Heavy legs are splayed, reaching towards the metal ridge at the foot of the bed. It’s the way they’ve been the last four hours; the way they’ve been since you gave birth to breathless life. (Kindle Locations 2022-2025).

The pickings are slim but read Anti Natal by Mike Ekunno. It will still your ADHD. Finally, there is suspense, you can almost feel and taste the streets. This piece alone is worth the price of the collection. It demonstrates good writing techniques; Ekunno’s ability to get into the character of the female protagonist makes this reader jealous. Anti Natal is probably the most contemporary of the stories. And funny too.

I loved Green Eyes and an Old Photo by Ola Nubi, a mercifully short but nice tale about living in England in the sixties. There is racism and interracial marriage but then it goes nowhere like a promising work in progress.

Cut it off by Lydia Matata is mere reportage, with an advocate’s passion – and biases. There is the usual – marital rape, cheating, with a “Kill the bastards! Cut off their penises!” chant. End of Story.

The stories run into each other and you can hardly tell one story from the other. There is precious little attempt at experimentation, the writers seem genuinely allergic to taking risks with their work. All we are left with are carefully edited memos, making you cross-eyed like a jogger racing past miles of manicured lawns, boring yard after boring yard.  These writers would have been better off writing essays. I am being generous here, African Roar 2013 is a collection of writing by writers who happen to be African. The editors should perhaps stop calling the series African Roar. It is deceptive and presumptuous. These writers certainly do not speak for Africa.

So what do I really think of this book? Well, I must thank Ivor Hartmann and Emmanuel Sigauke for their work in relentlessly and proudly pushing the envelope in terms of African writing. When the history of this phase of our struggle is written, their names will be up there in blazing letters. They are visionaries especially in the digital medium, who are struggling to live with a legacy system – the book. I think the book as a medium of expression robustly sabotages the considerable talents of these writers. Our writers no longer know how to write for hard print. A writer friend of mine did not include an online poem of his in his forthcoming anthology – because it contains hot links and it would not make sense without the links. THAT is the problem with books. The book is dying a long slow death and we are in denial. Well, I liked the cover design by Ivor Hartman, using Charles Nkomo’s painting, Memories.”  Read AfroSF Science Fiction by African Writers edited by Ivor Hartmann. It is on Amazon.com Now, THAT is good writing, period.

science fiction

African Roar 2011: African Writers Whimpering

Adunni, my iPad just bought me African Roar 2011, an anthology of stories written by fifteen African writers, and edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor Hartmann. I don’t think Adunni wasted our precious money but I expected more; I hope this is not my Christmas present.  Contrary to what the anthology implies, it is not exactly representative of African writing; the writers come from just five English speaking countries; seven are from Zimbabwe, four from Nigeria, two from South Africa, and one each from Ghana and Malawi. I loved the debut annual anthology last year and reviewed it here. Sadly this year’s collection is mostly a gaggle of safe stories celebrating the familiar, tried and tired. There is little attempt at experimentation and there’s neither range not depth in many of the stories. These are mostly political statements about certain miserable conditions, wrapped in the pretend-toga of short stories. They feature pedestrian prose and lack energy and passion. Editing issues hint at a hurried publication.

Many of the stories are feverish experiments in self-absorption and narcissism. Memory Chirere’s tribute to the late writer Stanley Ruzvidzo Mupfudza is self-serving – and poorly written. Blessed silence would have been a more fitting tribute. Stories like the late Mupfudza’s Witch’s Brew are painstakingly devoted to decay, disease and conflict. Noviolet Bulawayo’s open lines in her story Main are lovely prose-poetry: “Main.   Main Street standing up straight and adjusting the rainbow-coloured wrap skirt that threatens to slide down her wide waist, black blood boiling in her veins. Bustling throbbing writhing street. Everything moving: cars, voices, ambitions, money, dreams, feet, smoke. Just moving moving moving — like a wind.” Nice, but then Main dissolves into a pointless story about death, and filth. The good news is that the story is so short it should not be called a short story. Bulawayo’s considerable literary talents are gainfully deployed to relentlessly documenting despair and mediocrity. Zukiswa Wanner’s story, A Writer’s lot about the joys and perks of being a privileged African writer doted upon by the society and the West is a botched attempt at humor. Wanner should find her own voice. She will never be Binyavanga Wainaina.

Gloom and doom have become chic signature tunes for defining the African writer – and Africa. These self-perceptions are true and they deserve the world’s attention and opprobrium but they do not speak to the range of life’s experience in Africa. Instead they only reinforce the persistent negative image that the world seems to have of Africa. African writers may be courting disrespect with their glum self-absorption. Case in point: Jerry Guo of Newsweek once conducted a profoundly incoherent interview of Chinua Achebe (Chinua Achebe on Nigeria’s Future, Newsweek, July 5, 2010) in which he referred to Things Fall Apart, as a story about “a simple yam farmer in tribal Nigeria.”  In the 21st century Things Fall Apart is being described in such a hideous fashion. Anthologies like African Roar 2011 should improve upon the silence and raise the bar for the quality of discourse in the burdens of Africa’s stories.

It is not all dreary. Dango Mkandawire’s prose shines in The Times. Ivor Hartman’s story, Diner Ten about cockroaches is so charming it could serve as a public relations charm offensive for that most loathsome of creepy crawly pests. Hajira Amla’s story Longing for Home was quite entertaining, albeit slightly inchoate and improbable. Helon Habila handles the same subject masterfully in The UK Guardian (The Second Death of Martin Lango). Uche Peter Umez’s Lose Myself gamely  makes a short story out of a one-night stand somewhere in America. It is one of the best stories in the collection. It is mostly successful but obsessive thoughts of home make the protagonist – and the story impotent.

Why are virtually all these stories so mindlessly obsessed with Africa’s political and social issues? Are African writers under pressure to write the single story? Issues of identity are on my mind. I am thinking specifically of the African writer’s preoccupation with identity. It is possible that the label African writer is having the effect of defining and limiting the writer’s range. It is as if African writers have sealed themselves hermetically in this bubble where they  toil in a culture of despair, relentlessly beating the same ‘African” dead horse to death. The good news is that, thanks to many obscure writers (alas), the literature of our continent is alive and well in many places other than in anthologies. The reader is well advised to visit those places on the Internet where all the stories of Africa dance riotously and assure the world of her people’s place in this market called humanity. I have  previously shared my appreciation here and here and on Facebook and Twitter. And yes, this is a shameless plug, please join me on Facebook and on twitter (@ikhide).

Interestingly enough last year’s debut issue of African Roar had a helpful introductory essay that provided appropriate context and coherence to that year’s collection. This year’s edition could have used an introductory essay. As an aside, next year, the editors should strive to produce a more user-friendly Kindle edition. I had trouble navigating the collection. I did find the biographies of the writers in the collection more entertaining than several of the stories. I had more fun reading The Granta Book of the African Short Story published by Granta and edited by the Nigerian writer Helon Habila. As I shared here, I have issues with that collection, but you cannot quarrel with the quality of its presentation and the thoughtfulness that went into it. Habila’s introductory essay alone is worth the price of the book.

Wainaina recently ignited a firestorm with his statements about the West’s obsession with what African writers have to write about. The article and the podcast in which Wainaina held forth about this are here. Wainaina did say, “If you are to ask me what are the greatest issues in Africa, I would say it is that people love, people fuck, people kiss, people speak.” That may be true, but you wouldn’t know it from reading African Roar 2011 (and come to think of it, Habila’s recent collection of “African stories”). These writers are too busy solving Africa’s myriad issues to make wild lust-filled love. It would appear that only misery makes them roar.

African Roar 2011 is available on Amazon.

Related essays:

The three Rs: Reading, Reading and Reading January 23, 2011

Why Are We Not Reading Books? August 29, 2011

Who Speaks for Black Africa?

The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences May 28, 2011

The 2011 Caine Prize: How not to write about Africa May 24, 2011

Beyond the balance of the stories March 20, 2011

The writer, identity and purpose August 14, 2010

In search of the African writer January 24, 2010

Of African writers and their uncles February 6, 2011