Tuesday, August 23, 2016

301. Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Every Day is for the Thief (2007; Cassava Republic) by Teju Cole is an interesting story that is difficult to categorise, if you are one in love with such mundane activities. In some aspects it is a novella - Teju says: "Every Day is for the Thief, written after I revisited Lagos after a long absence, is a novel"; however, in an attempt 'to capture a contemporary moment in the life of the city'...'much of the impetus comes from real-life events'. In this aspect, Every Day is for the Thief  is not just your everyday novel. It is more than that. The writing style, the plot (actually there was none), and the unnamed narrator writing about his travel makes it read like a travelogue, creative non-fiction style. However, at what point is a work of fiction, fiction? Or what proportion of fiction is required for a work to be described as such? Realist writers, whatever that term might mean, writes of the everyday happenings that the reader, if the book is set in his environment, is well-travelled, or well-read, could easily relate with. It is in this latter description that one should read and judge Teju Cole's novel.

The story begins with an unnamed narrator who, after years of living abroad, decides to revisit home, Lagos. The premise in itself inverts the diaspora stories that has become commonplace, wherein the reader is bombarded with stories of (mal)adjustment and the daily struggles and travails of the emigre as he works tirelessly to insert himself seamlessly into an alien culture. Such stories focus on rejections by the autochthons and by the new country, the romanticisation of writer's native country, and the attractions of home. Sometimes such novels question the definition of home itself.

However, Teju's inversion of the immigrant story, though might be an outlier in the narrative space, is not untrue. It is also our reality; for far too often our 'been-tos' returning with a bouquet of adopted cultural trappings find that the home they left behind, that which they had yearned for even when they fled from it, had not remained unchanged, unscathed. Draped in borrowed culture they see things differently and yearn to have their new homes in their native homes. Sometimes these changes they see are real, mostly for the worst. At other times they are a reflection of their own transformation, which forces them into a comparative binary assessment of both homes, giving ones and zeros here and there. At other times, the change has been for the better but their exaggeration of what home might have been, during their periods of delusion, blinds them to this.

In Every Day for the Thief the observed changes, or more precisely the observed reality, was one of corruption, whose manifestation began the country's entry point, the High Commission. Several underhand dealings taking place under bold corruption-fighting posters, in the process of acquiring a passport, put the narrator into such despair that had the attraction of travelling home not been greater (those pull factors), it could have been quelled and squashed instantly. And here Cole clashed the heads of two cultures in one head. The young man having lived in a country where petty corruption is not common is unable to reconcile the request to offer 'silent' bribes in order for his passport to be issued on the Commission's own advertised time. Should he kowtow to the status quo and get what he wants or should he speak up and face the consequences? When such diametric forces collide, one definitely must give else there will be a breakdown in the conceived mind. Tolkien writes in The Fellowship of the Ring that when heads are at a loss bodies must serve...The strongest of us must seek the way. And so the strongest need wins. The question then becomes, which of these two needs is the strongest? For though the narrator may be against corruption, there is also the remorse of participating in that which is abhorred. However, the price to be payed for having the right thing done unto you, which in itself is guaranteed to be ephemeral - only for you - in a society where the majority has made the norm the exception and the exception the norm, can be so steep that it is almost unnecessary for one to bear such a cross. And yet the young man needed not to have gone through any of these mental struggles for just when he decided to insist on getting a receipt for an unapproved payment, an elderly man - himself experienced in such treatment informed him of the consequences and the uselessness of following through his plans:
Hey, hey young guy, why trouble yourself? They'll take your money anyway, and they'll punish you by delaying your passport. Is that what you want? Aren't you more interested in getting your passport than trying to prove a point? [12]
And it is this statement, the struggle between satisfying one's needs and sticking to one's moral standards in a system where the two are incompatible, it is this that feeds corruption, for the simple way out is to get what one needs irrespective of the cost. How can one fight a faceless system? You can bring down an individual in a corruption case but an individual cannot bring down a system, unaided. 

The narrator's ordeal at the point of entry was only a prelude to a much larger problem at home; one will say it was a sneak-peek into what lies beyond the door. Back in Nigeria, the narrator had to relive all the past events and more. The economy was in shambles and everybody is pilfering the pocket of the next person to survive. At every transaction point, money is either being forcibly extorted or wheedled away from him. There was the fuel attendant who casually sold him less litres of fuel than he paid for, the police officers who were extorting money from motorists not far from an anti-corruption campaign banner, traders pirating music CDs, civil servants sleeping on their jobs and being rude to people they are supposed to be serving, among others. And the advent of internet technology, spread by low-priced PCs, had added another layer to the melange. Internet scammers, who refer to themselves as Yahoo Boys have taken over internet cafes, sharing their spoils with the police who have been enabled by the law to arrest such individuals for prosecution but who in fact arrest them, strip them of their money, and release them into the pool to be harvested another time.

However, Every Day for the Thief is not a compendium of doom. Teju, unlike Packer, did not just walk through the airport into Nigeria to enumerate its ills in a literary adventure and an extravagant display of intellectual arrogance. He acknowledges the duality, that ray of light that provides a sliver of hope. 

In this story, Lagos and by extension Nigeria, is a character that plays a critical role in the events. It is a character that has not remained unaffected by the world around it. Thus, though corruption is an everyday occurrence and nothing seems to work (the provision of electrical power to spark industrial development is in itself nonexistent) there are spots of hope. The hope is mostly expressed in the enterprising spirit of the people or what the economists will refer to as private enterprises. For instance, existing side by side within the same space and time is the dilapidated art museum run by the government and a new and contemporary conservatoire, which caters for the needs of the rich and nouveau riche due to its price tag. Similarly, there was the proliferation of locally-owned eateries that have stifled the competition out of the ever popular American brands. There were also local, seemingly poor ladies reading seemingly expensive literary fiction a la Michael Ondaatje in dilapidated public transport. Side by side the music pirates were those in legitimate business selling music and high-end fiction to those individuals who can afford and who have the taste. Even the Yahoo Boys, the 419 scammers, offer hope, for they show that with a bit more focused training the people can utilise technology to lift themselves out of the destructive phalanges of poverty. Finally, the title of the book itself gives hope for is it not said in Nigeria (and Ghana too) that 'Every day is for the thief, one day is for the master (or owner)'? This offers the hope that perhaps there will be a redemptive generation who would save the country from its current and seemingly insurmountable predicament.

Like the Leopard, Teju's Lagos has almost permanent markings. Spots that uniquely identifies it. Just as the yellow jerrycans, for packing oil, have come to represent water and water shortages in Ghana, in Nigeria queues of jerrycans have come to represent fuel, the shortages of fuel, and the inconstant or erratic power supply. It thus represents an incomprehensible irony: the inability of the largest oil producer in Africa and the sixth largest in the world to meet its energy needs. The size and noise-level of generators and power plants have become status symbols. Another markings is the natural outcome of all these multiplicitous problems: crime. On the street, the struggle to survive is palpable and whilst crimes are rampant criminals are not spared the tire-and-petrol treatment. Are these spots the manifestations of a failed society?

In just 128 pages, Teju cuts through the Nigerian society revealing what is also the reality of many an African society. We meet desperate men who will turn every chance meeting into an opportunity to seek a way out of their current predicament and if possible escape to a higher economic pedestal, dejected men who have given up trying to change character of an obstinate and intransigent city (country), and men who have accepted the reality and the uselessness of going against the current and have joined the masses in raiding and raping their country of its essentials and non-essentials. Thus, Teju shows us a society where economic power is THE power and those who wield become lords over the minions. The narrator, having lived abroad, which in itself is the dream of almost everybody seeking a way out, is considered to have suddenly become soft and incapable of living within the harsh conditions and demands of Lagos life; thus, his hosts are prepared to go to all lengths to assuage the discomfort and make his stay almost as easy as they perceived it to be in the US. Whilst this might easily be seen as an act of benevolence from the host to the guest, it is also a recognition -seeking strategy which could lead to the bestowal of greater respect upon the host by the larger community, for the mere presence of a 'been-to' in one's family accords the family another rank up on the infinite economic ladder.

In dissecting and exposing the entrails of a society, it is Teju's narrative style that does the magic. The narrative style employed in this novella makes the images and scenes look as if they are in slow-motion. And in this slow-motion Teju presents details à la manière de Hemingway's Farewell to Arms, which is his only novel I have read. This narrative style holds the reader's hands through the crooks and crannies of the words being screwed together into images and scenes and the story. Thus, the reader is able to appreciate the point of view of the writer, if there is one. Though Mr Cole does not assume anything, he also does not spoon-feed the reader. This story have no major plot and so we are not following any major character apart from the narrator who is telling us the things he is seeing. There are times the reader wishes to know more about certain characters, like the lady who was reading Ontaadje in the danfo. In a way similar to Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway, Teju does not hang onto threads for too long. In presenting the sights (of paintings and dresses) and sounds (of bus conductors seeking passengers) of the city, the narrator tells us what his eyes are seeing, not what he thinks the people are thinking and as long as the eyes move from one event to another, the reading also bounces from one scene to the other. This style may worry people who want a storyline that rises and reaches a climax followed by the denouement. Yet, it will be a mistake to say that there is no storyline. The storyline is Lagos. For it is its story that the narrator is presenting and one cannot present the story of a city by focusing on a single spot; this will be similar to describing an elephant using its tail or legs or trunk. 

To end on a rather funny note, does Teju has a thing with sky blue caps? They seem to appear everywhere in this novella that they could not go unnoticed. This is a short and intelligent book. It is well-written.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

299-300: The Diamond As Big as the Ritz (by F. Scott Fitzgerald) & Daisy Miller by Henry James

300. Daisy Miller by Henry James: My first impression after reading this novel was one of disappointment.  It seemed too simple. I waited for something to happen but it never did until the main character died. However, like Fitzgerald, the story shows the progress society has made. The story is about social restrictions placed on young ladies. In the novel, it was frowned upon for a young unmarried woman to be seen in the company of a young man she is not engaged with for such a length of time without the presence of an elder woman. The problem was that some of these restrictions differ and when Daisy arrived in Europe where such restrictions were tough, she was confused and ignorant of what she was to do. Thus, reading the novel one is likely to think that Daisy is a tough woman brazenly defying society, yet it turned out that she was totally ignorant of the laws and that she was only flouting them in innocence. Though not a good representation of Henry James, it still provides a telescope into the cultural and social restrictions of the time.

299. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Other Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald books are social historical markers. They describe vividly - albeit with much theatrical exaggeration - America's consumerism and the culture of possession that engulfed America in the early twentieth century. They are social markers against which progress could be measured. Two specific stories that represent this are The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Bernice Bobs her Hair. In the latter, a man appropriates a resource all for himself and in the bid to protect this wealth built an army to fight off all intruders. The story has a religious twist to it as the heir to the wealth sought the face of book even when he did not believe in God to protect him. He even sought to bribe God to protect him from the explorers. Thus, in a way the story shows wealth became deified.

Bernice Bobs her Hair is more of a social marker and the restrictions society put in place to protect its values and norms, especially as they relate to the female species. Sometimes it is difficult to comprehend how these norms came to be and what they are supposed to protect. It is also easy to take current freedoms for granted without a baseline for comparison. So strong and strict and weird were society's restrictions that bobbing of the hair was considered inappropriate for a woman of society and she who did so was looked down upon.

Monday, August 08, 2016

A Five-Year Reading Challenge that Ended Almost Two Years Ago

In October of 2009, about seven months into my book blogging life, I came up with a plan to guide me read some fantastic books. I had just transitioned from reading 'everything' (or preferably pulp fiction) to literary fiction with focus on African literature. Realising how much I was missing, I set myself the target of reading 100 amazing books in five years. These books were to be exclusive of all other books I will read in the year. Thus, I can read other books but at the end of the five years I should have read these 100 books. I developed the list with vigour, with information from several sources (recommendations from friends and best books lists). This is the kind of challenge I cherish though I don't always complete challenges. However one challenging factor when it comes to challenges is book accessibility and it is because of this that I set the five-year target thinking that within that period the hurdle would have flattened out. 

So I made a list of books (here and there). Slowly, I grazed through the list and slowly time went by. However, by October 2014, when the challenge ended my reading slumped and my blogging life with it. It was so bad that it carried into 2015 and then 2016 making it impossible to talk about the end of the challenge and my level of achievement. Within this five years (or seven years as of 2016), I had changed jobs five times and each job had taken something away from my blogging life as every job I had taken had been quite different requiring new learning and new adjustments. 

Books Unread: Consequently, I have not been able to read 50 percent of the listed. In all, I read only 46 percent and of the 54 books not read I only have two on my unread bookshelf: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The following are the listed books I could not read:
  1. Anowa by Ama Atta Aidoo 
  2. A Dry White Season by Andre Brink 
  3. The Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee 
  4. The Blood Knot by Athol Fugard 
  5. Bones by Chenjerai Hove 
  6. Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night by Sindiwe Magona 
  7. House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera 
  8. Labyrinths by Christopher Okigbo 
  9. Song of Lawino by Okot P'Bitek 
  10. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadwai 
  11. Third World Express by Mongane Serote 
  12. Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera 
  13. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee 
  14. Osiris Rising by Ayi Kwei Armah 
  15. Tsoti by Athol Fugard 
  16. Toads for Supper by Chukwuemeka Ike 
  17. Ake: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka 
  18. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
  19. Summertime by J. M. Coetzee 
  20. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner 
  21. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner 
  22. Light in August by William Faulkner 
  23. Kim by Rudyard Kipling 
  24. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing 
  25. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
  26. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
  27. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann 
  28. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann 
  29. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood 
  30. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood 
  31. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon 
  32. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon 
  33. Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon 
  34. Vineland by Thomas Pynchon 
  35. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace 
  36. Poker by Wittgenstein 
  37. Mistress by Wittgenstein 
  38. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus by Wittgenstein 
  39. Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein 
  40. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 
  41. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert 
  42. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes 
  43. Moby-Dick by Hermes Melville 
  44. Ulysses by James Joyce 
  45. Carpenter's Gothic by William Gaddis 
  46. A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis 
  47. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maughan 
  48. Money by Martin Amis 
  49. London Fields by Martin Amis 
  50. The Information by Martin Amis 
  51. We Won't Budge by Manthia Diawara 
  52. Songs of Enchantment by Ben Okri 
  53. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 
Books Read: Though good books are difficult to come by, through benevolent friends and fate, I was able to read some really interesting titles listed below:
  1. Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe 
  2. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe 
  3. The Beautyful Ones are not yet born by Ayi Kwei Armah 
  4. Nervous Condition by Tsitsi Dangaremba 
  5. The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta 
  6. Burgher's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer 
  7. A Question of Power by Bessie Head 
  8. The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (I: Palace Walk; II: Palace of Desire; III: Sugar Street) 
  9. Indaba, My Children by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa 
  10. Chaka by Thomas Mofolo 
  11. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiongo'o 
  12. The Famished Road by Ben Okri 
  13. Season of Migration to the North by Salih El Tayyib 
  14. Death and the King's Horsemen by Wole Soyinka 
  15. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola 
  16. The Healers by Ayi Kwei Armah 
  17. They Say you are One of Us by Uwem Akpan 
  18. Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams 
  19. The Trial by Franz Kafka 
  20. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
  21. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
  22. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer 
  23. Life of Pi by Yann Martel 
  24. Possession by A. S. Byatt 
  25. Lord of the Flies by William Golding 
  26. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner 
  27. Beloved by Toni Morrison 
  28. A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul 
  29. A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul 
  30. 1984 by George Orwell 
  31. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee 
  32. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte 
  33. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini 
  34. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 
  35. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood 
  36. White Teeth by Zadie Smith 
  37. The Great Gatsby by Scott F. Fitzgerald 
  38. Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre 
  39. Theatre by Somerset Maughan 
  40. Atonement by Ian McEwan 
  41. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan 
  42. God Dies by the Nile by Nawal El Sadaawi 
  43. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie 
  44. Satanic Verses by Salman 
  45. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy 
  46. Infinite Riches by Ben Okiri
Even though the challenge is officially over, I will still look for some of the titles on the list to read; however, time has changed my taste and there are some books on this list I may not actively look for. I am happy that I undertook this challenge and sad that I could not make a deep dent into the list.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The 2016 Man Booker Dozen - Should we Worry?

The Man Booker Prize has, overtime, become the most prestigious literary award, not because of its 50,000 Pounds Sterling prize money (which is good but dwarfed by Nigeria's US$ 100,000 NLNG Prize for Literature), but for the fame and opportunities it opens up for nominees. To be long-listed is itself an achievement and the route to literary fame. Every year readers, writers, publishers and literary aficionados look forward to long-list and then the countdown to the shortlist and winner begins.

Not until 2013, when it was announced that the award will be expanded (in 2014) to cover all books written in English by any author anywhere on the planet but published in the UK, the Man Booker has been reserved for only authors in Britain, Ireland, the Commonwealth, and Zimbabwe. Since its inception in 1968, the prize has given out 48 awards (including the Lost Man Booker Prize in 1970 and the award-sharing in 1974); however, very few nominees and, therefore, fewer winners have come from Africa. Three individual Africans have won the awards since 1968: Nadine Gordimer (South Africa) shared the award with another writer in 1974 with her novel The Conservationist; J.M. Coetzee (South Africa, now Australia) won the award in 1983 and 1999 with The Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace, respectively; and Ben Okri (Nigeria) won it in 1991 with The Famished Road. In addition, there has been a few shortlisted writers:

  1. Andre Brink, South Africa, 1976, An Instant in the Wind
  2. Chinua Achebe, Nigeria, 1984, Anthills of the Savanna  
  3. Abdulrazak Gurnah, Tanzania, 1994, Paradise
  4. Damon Galgut, South Africa, 2003, The Good Doctor
  5. J. M. Coetzee, South Africa, 2009, Summertime
  6. Damon Galgut, South Africa, 2010, In the Strange Room
  7. Esi Edugyan, Ghana/Canada, 2011, Half-Blood Blues
  8. NoViolet Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, 2013, We Need New Names
  9. Chigozie Obioma, Nigeria, 2015, The Fishermen
Though these individuals did not win the awards in the respective years that they were shortlisted, they were as good as they had won. The 2016 longlist released on July 27, 2016 had one African who is no longer an African on it - J.M. Coetzee.  
  1. Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
  2. J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) - The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)
  3. A.L. Kennedy (UK) - Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)
  4. Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
  5. Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
  6. Ian McGuire (UK) - The North Water (Scribner UK)
  7. David Means (US) - Hystopia (Faber & Faber)
  8. Wyl Menmuir (UK) -The Many (Salt)
  9. Ottessa Moshfegh (US) - Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
  10. Virginia Reeves (US) - Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)
  11. Elizabeth Strout (US) - My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)
  12. David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
  13. Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)
A brief assessment of Africa's representation indicates two things: the old are still dominant and the new are mostly diasporeans: Esi Edugyan, Chigozie Obioma. Having transformed itself into an award for all novels written in English, the award is expected to represent the best of English language novel. The question therefore is, does the dearth of representation from Africa indicate the lack of good literature? Or is it just the publishers who are not active enough to submit entries? Or is it just the usual forgetfulness of the world?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

New Books Acquired

How do you justify your book purchases with limited book budget? Especially, when you want to break your promise to yourself? My excuse is that I am using the new books to ginger up the drastic drop of interest in reading. And who can argue against this reason? Once I have filled up my unread shelf again, I will be forced to deplete it. Though I know it really does not work. Cognitive dissonance? 

The following are the books I have in the past weeks and months:
  1. My Watch by Olusegun Obasanjo. This is a three-volume work by the former Nigerian president. I usually do not like biographies and autobiographies. They are a nice of rehashing people's deeds. It's as if the person is telling you how to remember him, which is like hacking into the minds of the people and rearranging the thoughts they have of you. It is unfair. However, it is also a way of learning from people. Others have retold completely doubtful biographies. Others have been called out on certain aspects of their lives. So it is not as if people believe entirely what is written in such books. But for people who have led nations and had carried out certain actions and taken certain critical decisions, it is important that we got to know the whys and hows those decisions were taken. For instance, Bush explained in his Decision Points memoir wrote that "Those who based decisions on principle, not some snapshot of public opinion, were often vindicated over time". Whether he is rearranging himself in our minds or not, he has written what he felt. My interest to read Olusengun's books is because Nigeria has a lot to tell. Sometimes you wonder why certain things are done and how certain individuals think. Who wouldn't want to read something from Abacha if he had had the opportunity to write something? But then my interest in Obasanjo's memoir is also because Wole Soyinka had written about him in You Must Set Forth at Dawn and I wanted to find out his side of the argument, even if slightly.
  2. My Vision by Muammar Gaddafi with Edmond Jouve. One of the greatest harm that was done to a country was the killing of Muammar Al Gaddafi. The motive for his killing is now apparent (thanks to leaks) and there is no need to discuss that now. However, in pretentiously 'saving' a nation and turning it over to democracy, Libya - overnight - moved from being a country with budget surpluses to a failed state, compared with the likes of Somalia. Suddenly, the freedom fighters and the lovers of 'democracy' have stopped shouting and the media has stopped its coverage. The leader of this atrocity, who boldly stated that - we came, we saw, he died (in reference to the killing of the leader of Libya) - is seeking the highest office and that is what has filled social media today. Five years ago, it was what western media and their phone-wielding reporters called Arab Spring. One cannot tell what positive sprang from the Spring. It is therefore interesting that one reads what the man says about himself. Not what has been said about him, which is always negative.
  3. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I have heard a lot about this book. Sometimes I don't believe in flowery accolades. I like to let the dust settle and read the latter reviews to assess if the rave is still on. Perhaps it is one of the reasons I never jumped onto Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go. However, once in a while you must allow yourself to be taken by the tides. One can call this exploratory. After  all, if we do not explore, how will we discover? And one cannot explore what one knows already. You must allow yourself to be led into the dark recesses of life. And with books, you must allow yourself to be led by the people once in a while. By the way, why should the first few books by diasporean authors be on identity? 
  4. The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. I am in search of books by these authors: Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon. I will read anything I find on them. Their writings are not just aimed at telling a story. They are philosophical and one does not come out of them unaffected. I wish we could write more of such books.
  5. Black Ass by A. Igoni Barrett. What about the ass? Which of them? OK. I have heard people mentioning the title but have not heard them discuss the content. However, the blurb sounds very interesting: Furo Wariboko – born and bred in Lagos – wakes up on the morning of his job interview to discover he has turned into a white man. As he hits the city streets running, still reeling from his new-found condition, Furo finds the dead ends of his life open out before him. As a white man in Nigeria, the world is seemingly his oyster – except for one thing: despite his radical transformation, Furo's ass remains robustly black.
  6. Zarah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. I have followed Nnedi on Twitter for a long time. I have talked about her books on my blog but I have not had the chance of reading her, until now. When I saw this copy, I did not allow the chance to pass. Her works have been described as science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction etc.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Discussion: New African Literary Books

It is always easy to come across posts that discusses or 'reviews' newly published books. However, in most cases these reviews are skewed to western audience and so most of the books listed are from America and Europe, with one or two African writers thrown into the mix to give it a semblance of wide coverage. However, most of the names that are thrown into the mix are Africans who are fortunate enough to have their works distributed in the UK and/or US. Whereas the literary output from the continent cannot be compared with those coming from the rest of the world in terms of numbers, they are more than insignificant.

Hence, kindly share with me  - with links and if possible your review (in the comments section) - of new African books you have come across. By new I am referring to books published since January 1, 2016 to present. You can even stretch it back a few months but it should not be more than twelve months since publication. So effectively books should have been published no farther in time than 25 July 2015.

Lets share and celebrate African writing. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

298. Born on Tuesday by Elnathan John

I have criticized the Caine Prize for pandering to a certain trope of stories. I can recite the number of times that the 'the poor/refugee boy waiting for a miracle from the West and killing people or finding dead bodies in the interim' has won the Caine Prize. In fact so severe was my aversion to this trend that I altogether stopped reading the short stories. It was as if there was a hidden agenda and every story must conform. In fact, I felt justified when in 2012 the chair of judges said they will 'beyond the more stereotypical narrative.' And Elnathan John has been shortlisted twice - 2013 and 2015. The story, Bayan Layi, which developed into Born on a Tuesday was shortlisted in 2013. By 2013 I had lost all interest in the prize and had stopped reading the stories for my Short Story Mondays.

When the Writers Project of Ghana selected this book for its book for June, I did not know what to expect. I had no knowledge that it had developed from a short story I would have easily considered a 'stereotypical' three years ago. Having not read the short story I cannot judge the transformation. However, I must say that Elnathan John showed a lot of maturity and control in developing the short story into a novel, which could easily have become a 'pity party' of atrocious proportions. In Markus Zusak's book Death declared 'I am haunted by humans'. This is because no fiction can accurately depict man's actions  when he is at his worst and any attempt at achieving this ends up with a story filled with scatology and horror that could keep your eyes open for a month. And what motif to provide a fast route to such horror than religious conflict and terrorism in a country known for these vices.

Born on a Tuesday, written in the first person, follows the story of Dantala - later Ahmad - from his journey from Bayan Layi to Sokoto and his gradual conversion from a drug imbuing young boy under the control of a benevolent gang-leader to his complete immersion into Islam under the guidance of his benefactor, Sheikh. Through Ahmad's narrative we are introduced to the development of religious fanaticism among sects and the role of politics in religious conflicts. Elnathan treated his subject matter so masterfully - explaining certain religious rights and phrase - that I began to wonder which part of Nigeria he lives or comes from. His description of the  relationship between the force (police and military) and the people, the people and their politicians, and between the people and their religious leader was mind-boggling. We observe how religious factionalism develop and how easy it is to whip up religious and political sentiments to the benefit of the politburo and how the whimsicality of the people plays a role in this. In this novel, we encounter a fanatic Yoruba Islam-convert whose sect is bent on implementing the extreme form of religious interpretation, a philanthropist who uses his philanthropy to gain popularity to catapult him into a political position, politicians whose care of the people is to win votes by all means necessarily without bringing any development to the people, and a people whose helplessness has made them vulnerable to their environment.

The author showed how complex life is and the impact of politico-religious conflicts on the lives of ordinary people. In this novel, the author sought to show rather than say, so that it did not fall into the trap of being preachy. Though narrated in Dantala's peculiar language, whom we are told was learning the English language, one does not encounter the difficulty usually found in novels of such characteristics. 

Born on a Tuesday is an interesting book worth the read.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

297. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) was one of the books I read last year or two. Again, I am not truly reviewing them. I am only talking about it.

The story is about a woman who fell in love with a man with a genetic disorder that allows him to unpredictably travel through time. This unpredictability of his travels led to several problems in that relationship. However, through some means involving the future self of Henry, the man, Clare - the woman - got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Alba. Alba was also diagnosed with chrono-impairment, the genetic disorder that causes time travel; however, Alba was able to control her destinations and the times of her travels.

The story seems to be about waiting for love and the problems that arise from such waiting. It is weird. This novel defies classification: is it a love story? Is it a science fiction? Have you read this novel? What's your opinion?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Quotes from My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk*

Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. [Page 3]

Four years after I first left Istanbul, while traveling through the endless steppes, snow-covered mountains and melancholy cities of Persia, carrying letters and collecting taxes, I admitted to myself that I was slowly forgetting the face of the childhood love I'd left behind. With growing panic, I tried desperately to remember her, only to realize that despite love, a face long not seen finally fades. [7]

When you love a city and have explored it frequently on foot, your body, not to mention your soul, gets to know the streets so well after a number of years that in a fit of melancholy, perhaps stirred by a light snow falling ever so sorrowfully, you'll discover your legs carrying you of their own accord toward one of your favorite promontories. [11]

After I took care of that pathetic man, wandering the streets of Istanbul for four days was enough to confirm that everyone with a gleam of cleverness in his eye and the shadow of his soul cast across his face was a hidden assassin. Only imbeciles are innocent. [18]

I was a maiden of striking beauty then. Any man who caught sight of me once, from afar, or from between parted curtains or yawning doors, or even through the layers of my modest head coverings, immediately became enamored of me. I'm not being a braggart, I'm explaining this so you'll understand my story and be better able to share in my grief. [47]

You know how in such situations reasonable people immediately sense that love without hope is simply hopeless, and understanding the limits of illogical realm of the heart, make a quick end of it by politely declaring, "They didn't find us suitably matched. That's just the way it is." But I'll you know that my mother said several times, "At least don't break the boy's heart." [48]

[A] person never knows exactly what she herself is thinking. This is what I know: Sometimes I'll say something and realize upon uttering it that it is of my own thinking; but no sooner do I arrive at that realization than I'm convinced the very opposite is true. [49]

Drink down your coffee so your sleep abandons you and your eyes open wide. Stare at me as you would at jinns and let me explain to you why I'm so alone. [56]

Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight. [72]

True ability and talent couldn't be corrupt even by the love of gold or fame. Furthermore, if truth be told, money and fame are the inalienable rights of the talented, as in my case, and only inspire us to greater feats. [75]

If love is part of the subject of the painting, the work ought to be rendered with love...if there's pain involved, pain should issue from the painting. Yet pain out to emerge from the at first glance invisible yet discernible inner harmony of the picture, not from the figures in the illustration or from their tears. [89]

Before the art of illumination there was blackness and afterward there will also be blackness. Through our colors, paints, art and love, we remember that Allah had commanded us to "See!" To know is to remember that you've seen. To see is to know without remembering. Thus, painting is remembering the blackness. The great master, who shared a love of painting and perceived that color and sight arose from darkness, longed to return to Allah's blackness by means of color. Artists without memory neither remember Allah nor his blackness. All great masters, their work, seek that profound void within color and outside time. [92]

Tell me then, does love make one a fool or do only fools fall in love? [99]

Haste delays the fruits of love. [100]

It wasn't aging, losing one's beauty or even being bereft of husband and money that was the worst of all calamities, what was truly horrible was not having anyone to be jealous of you. [106]

The larger and more colorful a city is, the more places there are to hide one's guilt and sin; the more crowded it is, the more people there are to hide behind. [123]

A city's intellect out to be measured not by its scholars, libraries, miniaturists, calligraphers and schools, but by the number of crimes insidiously committed on its dark streets over thousands of years. [123]

[L]ove is the ability to make the invisible visible and the desire always to feel the invisible in one's midst. [139]

If presented with the opportunity, we would choose to do in the name of a greater goal whatever awful thing we've already prepared to do for the sake of our own miserable gains, for the lust that burns within us or for the love that breaks our hearts... [144]

When faced with death, people lose control of their bodily functions - particularly the majority of those men who are known to be bravehearted. For this reason, the corpse-strewn battlefields that you've depicted thousands of times reek not of blood, gunpowder and heated armor as is assumed, but of shit and rotting flesh. [151]

Disappearing in a sulk might be a symptom of love, yet a sulking love is also tiresome and holds no promise of a future. [184]

Color is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness. Because I've listened to souls whispering - like the susurrus of the wind - from book to book and object to object for tens of thousands of years, allow me to say that my touch resembles the touch of angels. Part of me, the serious half, calls out to your vision while the mirthful half soars through the air with your glances. [225]

The first step is marriage ... Let's see to that first. Love comes after marriage. Don't forget: Marriage douses love's flame, leaving nothing but a barren and melancholy blackness. Of course, after marriage, love itself will vanish anyway;  but happiness fills the void. Still, there are those hasty fools who fall in love before marrying and, burning with emotion, exhaust all their feeling, believing love to be the highest goal in life. [231]

Only when one escapes the dungeons of time and space does it become evident that life is a straitjacket. However blissful it is being a soul without a body in the realm of the dead, so too is being a body without a soul among the living; what a pity nobody realizes this before dying. [281]

[I]n order for a genuine wandering dervish to escape the devil within, he must roam his entire life without remaining anywhere too long. [339]

If all men went to Heaven, no one would ever be frightened, and the world and its governments could never function on virtue alone; for in our world evil is as necessary as virtue and sin as necessary as rectitude. [350]

You're seeking what you want with your heart, whereas you need to be making decisions with your mind. [420]

Despite knowing what it takes to be content, a man might still be unhappy. [445]

Time doesn't flow if you don't dream. [466]

Without harboring bad intentions, one never goes to Hell. [482]
*Version published by Faber and Faber 2001

Saturday, May 14, 2016

296. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

This belongs to the books I read when my interest in read was waning. I did not get to review it. And I am not going to do so now. Again, I am going to state what I remember of this book so we can discuss it, if you have read it. 

One of the reasons I wanted to read Pamuk was that he is a Nobelist, having won it in 2006. Besides, he's Turkish and the Turkish have a rich history including the Ottoman Empire, making it a joy to read the level of sophistication of the time. This book covers a lot in just over 500 pages. I cannot seem to recollect and link the strands but this is what I remember:
  1. Each character narrates his part of the story in the first person in chapters dedicated to him or her. Thus there are multiple narrators in the story who are aware of each other. The narrators know each other and they know they are characters. The story begins with a murder with the would-be murder narrating his part of the story followed by a dog and a tree;
  2. The narrators are also aware of the reader and occasionally address the him or her. In fact, the reader is part of the narrative;
  3. The narrators sometimes refer to themselves in the third-person  even when they are the ones narrating the story;
  4. The story is about the culture of the Turkish people during the famous Ottoman Empire and the nascent stages of Islam. It explains why artists or miniaturists of the time did not draw their objects - trees, humans - in a way as to make them be identified, as the Franks (Europeans) did.
A great European master miniaturist and another great master artist are walking through a Frank meadow discussing virtuosity and art. As they stroll, a forest comes into view before them. The more expert of the two says to the other: "Painting in the new style demands such talent that if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked upon the painting could come here, and if he so desired, correctly select that tree from among the others".
I thank Allah that I, the humble tree before you, have not been drawn with such intent. And not because I fear that if I'd been thus depicted all the dogs in Istanbul would assume I was a real tree and piss on me: I don't want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning. (Chapter 10, Page 61)
  1.  The book also discusses the unrest and military invasions and murders among Provinces and rulers;
  2. The making of books: printing, illustrations, and binding seemed to be one of the themes of this story. And love too.
  3. Pamuk made every significant thing he wanted to talk about, such as the role dogs played or how they are perceived; Death, to narrate its story. It is as if he does not want to be directly involve - like making the culture show itself to the reader instead.
Actually, I enjoyed the book but I also remember struggling to keep up with some of its slow sections. It is different and for me this is what novels should be - novel.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

295. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Usually, when I read a book I make an attempt at reviewing and sharing with my readers. Sometimes attempt fails. Sometimes it feels like smugness: why should anyone pay attention to you when there are a thousand splendid reviews on the same book. This feeling becomes worse when I am talking about a non-African book. Consequently, I am changing the tack today. Today, we are all going to review this beautiful, and yet unsettling, book together. Yes, you and I - we; that is, if you have read it.

Kafka on the Shore is a story of two strands: the story of the 15-year old Kafka Tamura around whose neck, or on whose head, lay a huge chunk of Oedipal curse; and an old Nakata who lost a large part of his mental faculties when he survived a long coma induced by strange lights somewhere in the forests during the World War II, when he was a child. Nakata, however, gained the ability to talk to cats and to make strange things happen, like making leeches fall from the sky.

Kafka on the Shore is not the usual story that seems to provide answers with nicely tied-up endings. In this, Murakami tested the boundaries of belief and of the novel itself. He stretched the horizons of reality and the paranormal. To western readers satisfied with realist novels, this book will not be interesting as they cannot imagine how people - like Johnnie Walker or Colonel Sanders - could just appear and act, the latter says he is just a 'concept'. These individuals will marvel how walking through a forest could lead you to a place that is between this world and the world beyond, perhaps Dante's Limbo. They will scratch their heads to understand how a self-confessed cat-killer could collect the souls of cats and make flutes with them or how a 'concept' Colonel could suddenly become a pimp. However, for readers used to Latin American literature and for African readers, this will not be difficult to fathom for these are the stories we tell every day.

Even though this book borders on the surreal, it purveys modernity. In it you will meet characters who discuss music - classical music, poetry, philosophy both Eastern and Western, among others; you will meet individuals with so much America in them that sometimes you will wonder if the book is set in one of these western countries instead of Nakano, Shikoku and those in between. There is even a transgender gay who dresses like a man and who was referred to with masculine pronouns throughout the book. Juxtaposing modernity and such 'absurdity' to get a novel so complex and yet so easy to read is not a task the novice novelist can attempt. It, truly, is the work of a master.

So I am inviting you to a discussion of the novel. What did you take from this novel? Did you like it? Anything you have to say is welcome. I will respond to comments.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

A Lady’s Handbag

I am sharing with you my first poem in more than two years. 

You were like a lady’s handbag
Binging on all the lists they provided;
You were ravenous…

Having not learnt the hows and whens
of letting go
you swallowed all:
            the pens, the sandals
            the pains, the scandals

You imbibed them
and you swell, like a river in July,
and hanged on

On a branch
whose xylem has been beaten by the Harmattan

On a ledge
whose underbelly has been eaten by salt

On a hand
that gets weaker every step of the thousand miles

And the wind came and broke the branch
and shook your outstretched hand
and the bag fell from its ledge

onto their torrid faces

Exposing the dross –
The gross congeries of misshapen things;
An amorphousness

Of memories lost and forgotten
Of things seen and unidentified
Of events fluxed in the static-fluidity of time

You laid there
A consciousness of shattered things
under the feasting flashes of social-media addicts

who meme’d you and mined you
into juicy feeds and newsy reads, conjecturing
            The cause
            The source…

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