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I wish the Twilight trilogy had come out when I was a kid. That way, I could have read about vampires and scoffed at these pale pathetic beings. I could have gone to bed to dream of sugar, spice and rainbow-shitting unicorns.
But no. My childhood was pre-Twilight; before Stephenie Meyers managed to dig deep into the recesses of her lack of imagination to create characters that would forever shred all vampiric street cred and turn them into immortal objects of derision.
Before Meyers, there were real writers who didn’t shame the horror genre. They were called Anne Rice and Stephen King. I read their books and watched a young Kiefer Sutherland in Lost Boys and my innocent little brain kept all the images to unleash them before my eyes at night. My imagination, as with most children, was overactive, and gorging it on terrifying books and movies certainly did not help.
Remember in Science class when they told us plants and people compete for oxygen at night and that’s why you shouldn’t sleep with a potted plant in the room? I used to imagine waking up a shriveled gray mass of skin and bone, while a fat grinning cactus sat on my windowsill, thriving off of my oxygen and singing songs from Little Shop of Horrors.
My mind was capable of taking harmless facts and, from them, spinning gruesome horrors, covered in blood and gore and more blood. After reading Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, our pet dog became a radioactive bear-wolf-demon and, if I dared to peer over the covers, I’d be sure to find him poised at the foot of my bed, ready to attack me and take over my body. And no one would ever know that I was missing because my soul would hover in space, unseen for all eternity.
When I read A Christmas Carol, my heart wasn’t filled with yuletide warmth at Scrooge’s conversion into a good guy. No; at Christmas that year, I was convinced that the ghost of Jacob Marley had somehow found its way from the Dickensian world into my Mbarara village – and it was headed towards my bedroom. In the night’s quiet, I heard the infernal rattling of chains and waited for a ghostly face to appear inches from mine, to judge me for whatever sins I might have racked up at that age, and condemn me to an eternity of incessant torture.
I would glance over at where my siblings slept soundly, insulted by their unaffected sleep and swear, swear to never read a book or watch a movie again. I figured that if I stopped feeding my brain with information, it would have nothing to stew into festering terrors to keep me up at night. I resolved to be an ignoramus who could curl up and sleep peacefully.
Inexplicably I’d eventually dose off and wake up to another day, the night’s horrors forgotten. I’d find myself bored and pick up a book about a schizophrenic doctor with an evil alter ego and convince myself that this time, I wouldn’t let it get to my head.
I like the “2012” at the end. Gives it a rather auspicious feel. Like the World Cup or something. Well, if you’re a book lover like myself, you’ll agree that this is sort of an event.
First though, let’s get a confession out of the way: I have never really done a reading challenge before, besides the Orange January/July (which requires you to read one book by a previous Orange prize winner). I’m really hoping the ARC won’t fall victim to my commitment issues.
That said, I’m really excited about this! The guidelines for the ARC are over on kinnareads’ blog, but I’ll just re-state them here for your ease:
You have to read at least 5 books – about Africa, obviously; preferably written by African authors.
The genre is up to you: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, children’s books…
Reviews are not necessary, but if you have a blog, they’d be welcome! And if you’re from the APWIC group, feel free to briefly review or update me/us on your reads over on that page!
I have tweaked some of the rules for myself. I will do one book from each region of Africa. I decided to do this because I realize that I tend to favour the West Africans over others. This way, I can finally pick up some North African writers – suggestions, please?
Also, I have chosen younger authors, because as much as I adore Achebe, wa Thiong’o and the other heavyweights, I’d like to see what the young’uns are bringing.
Without further ado, my picks:
East Africa – One day I will write about this place by Binyavanga Wainaina
West Africa – Open City by Teju Cole
Southern Africa – Coconut by Kopano Matlwa
Central Africa – African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou
North Africa – ?? [suggestions, s’il vous plait?]
That’s it from me for now. Good luck with your picks and looking forward to great discussions and recommendations around Africa’s literature!
In the space of two days, thousands of Africans have risen up and made their voices heard. In Dakar, Senegal, crowds successfully protested against President Wade’s proposal to amend the constitution to create a monarchy.
In the tiny kingdom of Swaziland, a “fundraising” concert which was supposed to be given by Jadakiss for the royal family was boycotted. Not surprising given the fact that pretty much all the revenue in Swaziland goes to supporting the king’s outrageous lifestyle.
Buoyed by this impressive show of solidarity, I embarked on a Googling frenzy. Here’s links to a couple of inspiring stories I found:
In Malawi, an ambitious project is underway to turn the country’s oldest ship into a floating clinic. This is going to save a lot of lives and wages for the 25% population who live along Lake Malawi and currently have to make a 16-hour trip to get to the nearest hospital. They are giving the clinic the unfortunate name Chauncy Maples, but that’s nitpicking.
The Sierra Leone Refugee AllStars are a group of musicians who came together during their years living in a refugee camp in Guinea. Out of two old guitars, a microphone and a shared love of music, their powerful sound was born. They’ve done world tours, put out two albums and appeared on Oprah. They also feature on a cover of the Rolling Stone classic Gimme Shelter as part of the Playing for Change campaign and World Refugee Day. Tragedy to triumph, non?
This short post is a largely-unresearched (as yet) kneejerk reaction to Foreign Policy’s 2011 list of the world’s failed states.
In a photo essay titled Postcards from Hell, journalist Elizabeth Dickinson portrays heart-tugging scenes from Iraq, Iran, Haiti, parts of Asia and (surprise!) much of sub-Saharan Africa – all of which have made FP’s list of failed states. How did these 60 countries get chosen? Well, the folks at FP chose from “130,000 publicly available sources… 12 indicators including refugee flows, poverty, public services, security threats”.
According to wiki, the Fund for Peace (which ironically sponsored FP’S little show-and-tell) describes a failed state as one which has:
- lost control of its territory
- erosion of legitimate authority to make decisions
- inability to provide public services
- inability to interact fully with other members of the international community
On these criteria, can we rank Liberia as a failed state? Nigeria? Kenya? How about Uganda? Iran? Bhutan?
Now, I am not condoning abuse of human rights or grave failures to provide public services by governments.The situations of Somalia and Haiti can certainly not be overstated.
It just seems to me that this American finger-wagging was a result of some biased research. The superlative-filled captions that go along with these pictures are just-so to portray exactly what I think the FP is trying to say : If your brand of government is not modelled after the US, if you’re a Jihad-preaching crazy Ay-rab muslim, we’re gonna put you on the list.
If I took pictures of SouthEast DC or the Bronx and slapped some shocking (but true) stats on the US’ immigration policies or incarceration rates, you might think The Mighty Nation was a failed state too.
I was some place in the midst of Tea Obreht’s novel The Tiger’s Wife when it was announced winner of the Orange Prize for Best Fiction. I was hardly surprised, given the unexceptionally rave entrance she has enjoyed into the literary fold – she made The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list with no published work to her name; and the youngest on that list at 25. Yugoslavian by birth, her family left the country when she was 7; Obreht taught herself English by watching Disney films.
The awesome thing about it all is that she deserves it. The Tiger’s Wife is a mesmerizing feat of work that combines elements of Magical Realism and Fabulism to tell the war-time stories of a Yugoslavian doctor Natalia’s unique relationship with her recently-deceased grandfather.
Everything in Obreht’s book has character; everything! The guns, the dogs, the peasants, the deathless man and of course, the tiger. Each has an incredible back-story, little anecdotes that are as exquisitely wrought and entertaining as they are imperative to the main story. Obreht is not a writer. She is a masterful crafter of stories.
Another contender for the Orange Prize this year was Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, which I read after it took the Commonwealth Writer’s honor in May. The Memory of Love is an incredible book in its own right.
Incidentally, much like The Tiger’s Wife, it goes between two stories of war – this time, in Sierra Leone: in the 1960s and the 1990s. The 90s are represented by a young surgeon Kai Mansaray who is haunted by memories of the war, and torn over his decision to leave Sierra Leone for a better life elsewhere. He forms a friendship with a British psychiatrist Adrian Lockheart, through which we eventually learn of the terrible things he saw and did in the war.
It is also through Adrian’s work at the asylum that we learn of the psychological effects of war on ordinary people like Agnes and Adecali, witnesses to unspeakable horrors. Literally unspeakable. Adrian slowly coaxes stories out of them, which would otherwise have gone untold. And this is the crux of Forna’s book –
“It was almost as though they were afraid of being implicated in the circumstance of their own lives. Questions discomfit them. Remembering, talking … it’s as though the entire nation is sworn to some terrible secret.”
It is only Elias Cole, a professor on his deathbed, who willingly narrates to us a compelling story of betrayal and injustice set in the Sierra Leone of the 60s. Elias Cole is despicable – I haven’t met such an amoral character since Nabokov’s Humbert-Humbert. While spewing my disgust on Twitter, Forna actually replied to say she was “glad. It means [my] moral compass is in good working order.” 🙂
And yet both Cole and Adrian’s asylum patients suffer what Forna calls the ‘fragmentation of conscience’ – he is tortured by the omissions of his history; they are tortured by the acts they are forced to commit.
The Memory of Love struggles a little to get off the ground, but on the whole, Forna has a very important message about post-war effects on the psyche of a nation. The Tiger’s Wife, on the other hand, is a thrill from start to finish which will leave you questioning superstition and science, and what it means to be an outcast.
I heartily recommend both books!
I haven’t read a non-academic book in months! Okay, since March, but it feels like eons ago.
In that time, I have accumulated a handsome list of recommended reads and rave reviews and as a result I am this close to building a time machine that will take me straight to June,* when tests are done and winter break is here and I can curl up with a cup of coffee that I will ignore while I devour a healthy stack of books.
Presenting my Winter Booklist:
1. The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht, a literary prodigy whose first book – a mythological telling of the Yugoslavian war – has been gushed over by critics. I sneak-peeked it and must say I’m super-excited to read the rest of it.
2. The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky. Apparently I shouldn’t die without having read this book.
3. The Element: How finding your passion changes everything – Sir Ken Robinson. I love the humor with which he speaks about creativity development and education reform. I’ve only watched his TED talks so far, but I think this read will be worth it.
4. On Black Sisters’ Street – Chika Unigwe.
5. The Masque of Africa: glimpses of African belief – VS Naipaul. I have been meaning to buy this book for a year now, because I like Naipaul’s writing and the exploration of religions is almost always interesting. But after reviews like these, I’m not sure I’ll get it.
In other news, Jane Eyre has been adapted into a movie (again). I have never seen the 1983 version, so I’ll be heading to the cinema for this with a curious anxiety. Fingers crossed Hollywood does not ruin that classic story for us.
*not accounting for all the wild apocalypse theories being flung about lately.
I also added Unburnable – Marie-Elena Jones because I haven’t read a good Caribbean story since…. since the biography of Bob Marley 🙂
there’s no turning around
You sat on your bed, hearing old springs creak loudly in the silence. And you took in the emptiness of the large cold room, the full realisation of it washing over you. You were away from home for the first time in your life. Eighteen years old and eager to grow up. The view outside was beautiful, a grand mountain range spreading large motherly arms around the city, as far as the eye could see. You sighed. It was meant to be a sigh of contentment, but all that came out was a nervous rushing of air. Loud in the silence. You moved away from the window, embarrassed, even though you were alone in the room. You couldn’t even express your emotions right – how would you survive here? How would you cook your food, forge friendships, make everyone at home proud of their decision to send you so far away to get a good education? You sighed again – this time more convincingly – picked up your bags and started the long lonely process of unpacking them.
I’m too far from home
You’re out of breath from running to catch the train. Two years later and you can never seem to make it out of bed on time. A rotund black woman with equally round eyeglasses stamps a ticket and hands it to you. Is that a smile or a snarl? You step onto the train, locating your usual place, third row on the left. Slumping in your seat, you fish a book out of your bag, wondering for the hundredth time if you will ever get used to the acrid smell of urine, sweat and fish that pervades the cabin. Still, the third window is one of the two which opens just a crack, offering relief once the train starts moving.
You open the book – glad for the only moment of the day when you can retreat into a world of fiction. You don’t notice the four men – boys, really – who step onto the train in a single file. They are quiet, talking amongst themselves in soft clicks and hushed exclamations. In a moment, the clicking stops. The train is quiet. Too quiet. You look up from the book and turn to where the four boys are standing around one of the passengers. You crane your neck to find the familiar face of a tall gangly man in a shabby suit. You both take this train three days a week – you, out of breath from running, and clutching a totebag of schoolbooks and laptop. He, in the same clean but threadbare jacket, holding an equally wellworn briefcase of notes in one hand.The first time you meet, you smile reserved smiles at each other.
The clicking begins again, loud this time. You see the man in a suit look up at the boys in confusion. His eyes register a slight defiance, retreating steadily in fear as the boys’ questions take on a harsh tone.
Usukaphi? Where are you from, you later find out.
Two brows furrowed in confusion. Eight brows stare back menacingly.
Ndibonise iI.D. yakho? This you can make out. And a cold realisation sets in – these boys are part of it. A wave of xenophobic attacks you have been reading about in the paper for almost a week now. Makeshift homes razed to the ground, immigrants barely making it out alive as they grabbed any of their few possessions to seek refuge in churches and community halls.
The man in a suit is a foreigner. Just like you.
In May 2008, a series of riots started in a township in Johannesburg, when locals attacked migrants from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, killing 2 people and injuring 40 others. The violence spread in the following weeks to Gauteng and then to the coastal cities of Durban and Cape Town. In a month, 62 were left dead, 21 of whom were South African citizens. Reports showed that local leaders orchestrated the violence in many of these areas.
The Freshly Ground concert that I was so looking forward to has been cancelled. This is because the band was double-booked for shows in East Africa and South Africa, apparently. That manager needs to be fired, evidently. Well, now I have 80,000 shillings with which to fix my wonky glasses, but I also need to make fresh Saturday night plans.
Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier each year. I blame it mostly on these damn supermarket chains that started hanging up tinsel and lights and things before I’d even decided what to go as for Halloween. (A sexy witch, in case you’re wondering) Aside: If Uchumi puts out that caroling Santa this year, I swear to God, I will draw genitals on its face while no one’s looking!
Anyway, despite our family tradition of no-gift-giving, I have decided to make holiday gifts for the family. Taxidermied rats. I got the idea after watching Dinner for Shmucks (hilarious. go rent it now) – they just looked so cute and I thought I could do a few to resemble (and possibly, though unintentionally, mock) my parents and siblings. Once they get past the formaldehyde smell and the deadness of the rats, I think they’ll really appreciate my gift.
Other than that, it looks like a trip to the village, as per our same ol’ yearly plan for the holidays. As I get older, I have come to appreciate this version of a Christmas celebration: to get away from the bustling consumer-driven madness of the city (after doing a week’s worth of shopping for our trip, of course) and spend a few days in the relative tranquility of our charming little village home, surrounded by family, cows and copious amounts of boxed wine.
Few things give me greater joy than reading and talking about African literature. So I had a big fat smile on my face when I opened this week’s East African to find a full-page article on the current direction of African writing. The East African rocks. I hope our local dailies are listening.
Aside: did I just describe a newspaper as rocking? I need a new hobby.
The writer of this article, a Kenyan, doesn’t particularly address anything novel.
Yes, our continent’s new writers are increasingly being given voice by Western publishers – Adichie’s writing comes out of US publishing houses, and even Achebe happily set up camp at Brown University.
Yes, African readers often tend to discover their own talent ironically after said talent is honored with a Western literary prize – the Caine, the Booker, the Orange Prize and so on. I’m not saying our writers don’t deserve international acclaim, but what does it say about our continent’s reading culture that we don’t know who Olufemi Terry is until he wins the Caine Prize?
And yes – whether as a direct result of these factors or not – African writers hoping to be discovered are adopting a more ‘global’ language; beyond war, famine and the ills of colonialism to dates in coffee houses, interracial romance and new technology.
What I loved most about this article was the writer’s acknowledgment of our continent’s vast young talent. In Uganda at least, Achebe, Soyinka, wa Thiong’o; these men are still mandatory reading on any student’s list. And rightly so. The stories of our past are fiercely important and there’s no denying that our “all-time greats” have greatly influenced our young writers’ voices (a la Achebe and Adichie).
I’m just waiting for the day when Adichie and Baingana will be taught alongside the greats. Their stories are Africa now – the Africa that studies abroad and returns mind and heart full of cultural confusion, if they return at all; the Africa that is struggling to find a voice and place among a rapidly-evolving technological playing field; the Africa that has to worry about civil war, about HIV/AIDS, about homosexuality.
The writer was good enough to share a list of his personal 25 favorite authors out of Africa. Before I share a short personal favorites list, I must admit to suffering from the indecision that plagued wa Thiong’o about what or who exactly is an ‘African’ author; to being limited to the Anglophones only; and to being kind of a rookie at this 🙂
- Chimamanda Adichie (all 3 books so far)
- Doreen Baingana (Tropical Fish)
- Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Decolonising the Mind)
- Achebe (Anthills of the Savannah; No Longer at Ease)
- Ayi Kwei Armah (The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born)
- Segun Afolabi (A Life Elsewhere)
- Monica Arac de Nyeko (Jambula Tree; Strange Fruit)
- Naguib Mahfouz (The Cairo Trilogy)
- Wole Soyinka (the Brother Jero plays; The Man Died)
- Ben Okri (The Famished Road)
I’d like to know your thoughts on African literature as you’ve come to know it, and which writers make your favorites list!