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Africa Reading Challenge 2012


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!


I’m Cheating on Zadie Smith


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!



Come soon, June! (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.


LITTLE UPDATE: I added Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love to this list. I am 7 chapters in and I can already see why it got nods from both the Commonwealth and Orange Prizes.

I also added Unburnable – Marie-Elena Jones because I haven’t read a good Caribbean story since…. since the biography of Bob Marley 🙂

Africa’s new stories


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 🙂

  1. Chimamanda Adichie (all 3 books so far)
  2. Doreen Baingana (Tropical Fish)
  3. Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Decolonising the Mind)
  4. Achebe (Anthills of the Savannah; No Longer at Ease)
  5. Ayi Kwei Armah (The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born)
  6. Segun Afolabi (A Life Elsewhere)
  7. Monica Arac de Nyeko (Jambula Tree; Strange Fruit)
  8. Naguib Mahfouz (The Cairo Trilogy)
  9. Wole Soyinka (the Brother Jero plays; The Man Died)
  10. 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!

Update: Naija’s new chapter of literary history, CNN

Perfume: the story of a murderer


Is Patrick Suskind’s horrible and ingenious tale of young Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who has an extraordinary sense of smell and an obsession with finding and bottling the essence of perfection. 

Suskind writes as the young man’s shadow, a technique that works perfectly as he takes us into the murderer’s mind, a fascinating thing because he sees the world through his nose, as it were.

Grenouille isn’t introduced immediately as the single-minded killer he turns out to be. Instead we follow his journey from orphaned boyhood in Paris to the faubourgs of northern France, and learn more than we bargained for about the business of perfumery in the 1700s. Suskind never lets up on the evocative images and smells -never before has a story delighted and revolted all my senses like this one did.  

What is surprising is that I wasn’t once struck with revulsion at Grenouille’s sick quest – you find yourself going from pity to wonder to confusion and only occasionally, disgust. So well written is Suskind’s tale that it is hard to lose (what I think is) his message. Beneath the horror of a man who had to murder young girls to bottle their innocence – if such a thing were ever possible – I believe Perfume is a story about duplicity of belief.

The climactic scene of Grenouille’s public killing for his crimes turns into a rapturous orgy of worship – and yet Grenouille who has wanted this all his life wonders how people can worship what they do not understand – only he with the superhuman sense of smell knew that they adored his innocence, and yet the crowd believes they are in adoration of Grenouille himself.

Their adoration is rendered even more superficial because Grenouille doesn’t exist without the scent of innocence. Having no smell of his own, he has floated through life virtually unnoticed and strangely, everyone he comes into contact with dies.

Perfume is a grotesque caricature of our morality that will delight and shock you and make you think.

Plugging alert: I am loving Princess’ new book blog Book Lugambo!

Indians can write… also, I love Zadie Smith


I just remembered this quote from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, ‘Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.’ Now how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll–then we call them crazy… We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that their might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.*

which made me love her and that book all over again. Talk about uncomfortable truth. I must re-read it sometime soon.

The book I won’t be reading again ever is The Accidental by Ali Smith. I carried it with me to Gulu, and perhaps I didn’t do it justice in between taking pictures and falling asleep, but it is honestly not a book I can talk about in superlatives. It just falls somewhere between somewhat agonizing and mildly interesting. 

So this 30-something barefoot hippie woman Amber comes unexpectedly into the lives of the Smart family. Astrid the odd preteen daughter dying to stand out and fit in at the same time. Magnus, the sexually frustrated sixteen year old son. Eve, mother and writer who seems to have failed at mothering and writing but is desperately trying to keep up an appearance of the contrary; and Michael the children’s stepfather and Eve’s second husband – a pretentious Linguistics professor whose unfortunate students have to seduce his old ass to get any good grades.
When Amber shows up at their doorstep during a boring family holiday in Norfolk, they take her in.
Exposure of true personalities, emergence of frustrations and relative chaos ensue as Amber begins to bring out the best, worst and hidden sides of everyone, each Smart becoming infatuated with her ‘exoticism’ in their own way.
Ali Smith writes in an experimental manner that dispenses with norms like beginning your sentences, or quoting your dialogue; and inserts entire chapters of painful (to read) love-poetry. She’s like a chameleon narrator taking on her characters’ mannerisms and thought-flows to produce a personal yet jagged sequence of the same events told from several points of view.
I liked the book’s pace, particularly post-Amber’s entry – before that, the characters are so dead, you just want to shake them! I particularly liked Eve’s chapters which are like a QnA session with her soul. But it ends on an odd anticlimax and it’s hard to pick out Smith’s message – assuming there was one. I recommend only if you have spare time aplenty and great patience.
I’m nearly done with the delightful Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. She deals with very much the same themes as Jhumpa Lahiri in Interpreter of Maladies, which is my next to-be-read (thank you Princess). And then Jane Bussman’s The Worst Date Ever, an autobiography of a British celeb-journalist who finds herself in Northern Uganda during the war. It’s supposed to be comic and I want to see how (if) she pulls that off.
*of course I didn’t remember it for word. Google helped.

A post about my weekend plans as if they’re terribly interesting


I haven’t picked up a book in about 3 weeks! So I have every intention of making this weekend a book-y one. I am sitting in my favorite corner of the garden, with Jose Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, as my own little way of honoring this prolific writer’s life. He died on June 18 at the age of 87.

I have searched high and low for his book Blindness, after watching the movie, but no luck. No story has struck me more about the human condition and the moral questions involved in our instincts for self-preservation. [pretentious, me?]

About two weekends ago, I resolved to read Ali Smith’s The Accidental. So I took it down off my shelf and carried it to the breakfast table. My mother saw it and said, “The Accidental what?”

I said, “The Accidental nothing.”

She: How can nothing be accidental?

I: No. Not like that. I mean, it’s The Accidental. Just that.

She: What a silly title. It’s incomplete. What kind of a book is that to read?

My father chimes in: And what is she (girl on the cover) holding in her hand? A gun? Is she dead? Did she shoot herself? [?!]

I: No. I think it’s a camera. And she means ‘the accidental’ in the same way I would say ‘the unfortunate’ or ‘the monumental’.

Both parents sighed.

I wonder who I get this book obsession from?

After conquering Saramago, I have Ali Smith lined up. And speaking of, I have been having dreams about Zadie Smith! Will no one buy me her Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays?

Happy weekend, all!

the controversial cover 🙂