Saturday, January 26, 2008

RECOLLECTION - by Shimmer Chinodya, Zimbabwe, born 1957. Winner of the Noma Award 2007.

I remember this wood only too well.
I remember these crouching thorn trees (- it seems
they've hardly grown ever since I last saw them -)
And these criss-crossing bush paths
Bordering a coarse crop of grass yellowed
With the dust stirred up
By swishing feet of children, and
The wind of course.
I remember too, the chirping of the timid little birds.

I remember how we used to run barefoot
Under these thorn trees.
Three brothers with feet full of thorns -
Bird-shooting we were, with rough made little catapults
That exploded into our own faces.
And pockets full of jingling stones picked up somewhere.
Between us we shot down one bird in a year.

I remember the big sign that said
Something about people not being allowed in -
And we, heedless, half ignorant prowlers
Made the wood our hunting-ground
And birds and bitter little berries our prey.

I remember it only too well...
I remember even more now, how young we were then
And how this scrub bush
Growing patched and ungreen - a short walk
From the township's street of grim houses
Satisfied our boyish dreams.
from EXPLORINGS: a collection of poems for the young people of southern Africa compiled by Robin Malan.

No access to internet this week (more on that later) - back blogging on the 4th.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I was very pleased with the announcement just before Christmas that the winner of The Guardian First Book Award 2007 is Dinaw Mengestu for CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION (in America the title is THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS THAT HEAVEN BEARS). It is a beautifully written book, and especially as a first novel, is worth reading. Aida Edemariam interviewed Mengestu, regarding writing the book:
He had already written most of a novel about "farmers in the Midwest, and a flood. It was very cerebral, full of memories without any characters ... it was terrible", when, one day, he was walking down 18th Street in Washington and "I saw this Ethiopian standing behind the counter of a very small shop. It was late at night and there was nobody in the store, and I went home and wrote, 'Almost nobody comes into this store any more'. And that's really where the story began." Sepha Stephanos, the character at the centre of Children of the Revolution, left Ethiopia at 16, 17 years ago; he has worked as a porter, now owns a small, failing shop, has never quite arrived in this new country, feels increasingly lost. (Full article in The Guardian here.)
I heard Mengestu speaking at the Hay Festival 2007, and one point he made in particular stuck with me, especially as it relates really well to the novel. He stressed the importance of needing to connect with other people. CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION is a terribly sad and lonely story. Sepha Stephanos runs a tiny shop just off Logan Circle in Washington, D.C. He is isolated in the way that so many immigrants are. With no immediate family living with him, his developing friendship with the neighbour Judith, and her small daughter Naomi takes on increasing significance.
''I did not come to America to find a better life...I came here running and screaming with the ghosts of an old one firmly attached to my back. My goal since then has always been a simple one: to persist unnoticed through the days, to do no more harm.''
Sepha worked his first job on arrival in the US as a valet at the Capitol Hotel, where he made friends with the Congolese Joseph (now working as a waiter) and Kenyan Kenneth (now an engineer). They are a constant backdrop to Sepha's story, as foils to his own. How each of them is learning to cope with immigrant life fills out the rougher edges of the plot, but both are achingly isolated, each in his own way.

There has been some discussion over the difference in titles (a really interesting example is over on dovegreyreader's blog, do take a look). Personally, I find the UK title the most appropriate in terms of the subject matter of the book. The African characters have all fled difficult situations and, while trying to make a new way, are still haunted by what has gone before, isolating them in their new lives. Mengestu tries to make this explicit near the start, setting the scene with a game the three men play together, trying to name every revolution across the continent and testing each other for details over rounds of drinks. You can find a longer extract of this scene on The Guardian website (also includes a brief Q&A and link to a podcast), but here is a taster:
Joseph is short and stout like a tree stump. He has a large round face that looks like a moon pie. Kenneth used to tell him he looked Ghanaian.
"You have a typical Ghanaian face, Joe. Round eyes. Round face. Round nose. You're Ghanaian through and through. Admit it and let's move on."
Joe would stand up then and theatrically slam his fist into the table, or into his palm, or against the wall. "I am from Zaire," he would yell out. "And you are an ass." Or, more recently, and in a much more subdued tone: "I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Next week it may be something different. I admit that. Perhaps tomorrow I'll be from the Liberated Land of Laurent Kabila. But today, as far as I know, I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo."
This is my favourite part of the scene, for the ability to capture so much of the confusion and regret in parts of the the continent.

My only significant criticism of the book is that it is written with no reflection of the speech patterns of the various characters. On the one hand, this makes for successful reading because the reader is not distracted by dialects or accents on the page. On the other hand, I am used to reading African titles which do reflect where people are from - Helon Habila and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie being excellent examples of writers working in this way (even well-known and perhaps more mainstream writers like Michael Ondaatje and Alexander McCall Smith do this successfully). But perhaps this is a small and petty criticism.

This is not a book where much dramatic happens. As Logan Circle begins to gentrify, Sepha spirals slowly out of control with his life. It is the sense of loss, which is palpable and poignant here, and for that it is highly recommended reading.

See Dinaw at a reading on youtube.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Thanks to Ex Libris for drawing my attention to an Africa Reading Challenge being hosted over on Siphoning Off a Few Thoughts. Admittedly, this is the area in which I tend to focus most of my reading anyway, but I'm only too happy to sign up - it will force me to pay a little more attention to some of the titles in my TBR pile that have come my way over the past year. I've chosen (as always, descriptions taken from cover blurbs):

AUTUMN QUAIL - Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)
...a tale of moral responsibility, alienation, and political downfall featuring a corrupt young bureaucrat, Isa ad-Dabbagh, who is one of the early victims of the purge after the 1952 Revolution in Egypt. The conflict between his emotional instincts and his gradual intellectual acceptance of the Revolution forms the framework for a remarkable portrait of the clash between past and present...

BURN MY HEART - Beverley Naidoo (South African author/Kenyan setting)
Two boys living on the same Kenyan farm but they share an uneasy friendship. They live in a time when white and black means rich and poor - and a secret society, called the Mau Mau, want their land and freedom back.

COCONUT - Kopano Matlwa (South Africa)
...about growing up black in white suburbs, where the cost of fitting in can be your very identity...

MARU - Bessie Head (South African author/Botswanan setting)
Margaret Cadmore, an orphaned Basarwa girl, comes to Dilepe to teach, only to discover that in this remote Botswanan village her own people are treated as outcasts. Her presence divides the village...

Onuma returns to his village after fifteen years. He makes a big hit, especially with the girls, in a Jaguar the colour of gold...

THE SUNS OF INDEPENDENCE - Ahmadou Kourouma (Cote d'Ivoire)
Fama is the last of the Dumbuya, the ruling dynasty of Horodugu. The colonial era deprived him of the chiefdom; the 'suns of independence' have reduced him to living on alms, and the toil of his much-enduring wife Salimata, in the teeming capital city of the Ebony Coast.

Go on over and sign up for the Africa Reading Challenge yourself - you know you want to!

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Much of Buchi Emecheta's work explores both British and Nigerian life, a reflection of her arrival in Britain in the 1960s and struggling to reconcile herself and her writing with the contrasts between both cultures. In THE NEW TRIBE the Rev. Arthur Arlington and his wife Ginny adopt a baby girl left in a Tesco shopping bag in a phone booth. A Nigerian woman reading the resultant publicity asks them to take in her son Chester too.

This book would be well suited to a class of high school teenagers, as it raises plenty of important issues about family and identity. Chester is adopted and raised in a small English coastal town, clergy household. While he loves his family, he gradually becomes aware that he looks different from them, beginning a process of exploring for himself what that means.

There's a lovely song by Youssou N'Dour and Neneh Cherry called 7 Seconds, from the album THE GUIDE (WOMMAT) containing the lyrics: "When a child is born into this world, it has no concept of the tone of skin its living in." This book reminds me of that:
"You're a real African king!" exclaimed Ginny. "Now try on your crown." She had made the crown of cardboard, and covered it in gold paper. It was a little big, but Chester was happy to wear it.
"What do you think, Arthur?"
"Oh yes, Chester, you look grand." Chester looked at his parents admiring him, and felt excited.
On the day of the play, he enjoyed himself enormously in his purple velvet robe and shiny crown. After the play there were hot mince pies and different kinds of juice. Many of the parents congratulated him on being such a good king. As they left the school hall, Chester ran up to say goodbye to Ray who was dressed as a shepherd, with a crook in his hand. His father laughed and said jovially, "Chester, King of the Orient!"
On his way home in the dark with his parents, Chester slipped his hand into Ginny's and asked, "What's the Orient, Mummy?"
"It means the East, where the wise men came from," she responded.
"What's the East?" he pursued. Ginny was silent for a moment, then she said, "Africa's in the East. Where your people came from."
In bed that night, he thought about her words. "Your people." He thought the Arlingtons were his people. The sense of unbelonging strengthened." (pp.11-12)
I did find the "surprise explanation" behind the driving force in Chester's life to be no surprise at all as it appeared (to me at least) as obvious from the start. However, the book is still well worth a look for the description of a teenage search for identity. Particularly successful is Emecheta's portrayal of friendships (especially those with Mr Egwu and his sons, the first black family Chester encounters), and her descriptions of Nigeria when Chester returns there to search out his roots are highly evocative.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

A side effect of having a baby on the way is the sudden need to declutter and make space for a nursery. Our box room is over-run with books and I've been taking a long hard look at them - for instance, do I really need a copy of Aristotle's THE POLITICS from an undergraduate philosophy course sixteen years ago?! And so on...

This has also reminded me just how many books I still want to read that are lurking quietly on the shelves. I've just pulled out ten this morning that I'd like to prioritize over the next few months (all descriptions taken from dustjackets):

THE POLITICS OF MEMORY: TRUTH, HEALING & SOCIAL JUSTICE - edited by Ifi Amadiume & Abdullahi An-Na'im
"This book brings together a distinguished group of scholars, policy-makers, justice workers and social a creative engagement with issues of human rights in relation to truth, healing and social justice, they look at how people rebuild broken communities and the tensions between reconciliation and social justice in post-conflict situations."

"At the start of World War One, German warships controlled Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa. The British had no naval craft at all upon 'Tanganjikasee', as the Germans called it. This mattered: it was the longest lake in the world and of great strategic advantage. In June 1915, a force of 28 men was despatched from Britain on a vast journey. Their orders were to take control of the lake. To reach it, they had to haul two motorboats with the unlikely names of Mimi and Toutou through the wilds of the Congo..."

THE SOCCER WAR - Ryszard Kapuscinski
"In 1964, renowned reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski was appointed by the Polish Press Agency as its only foreign correspondent, and for the next ten years he was 'responsible' for fifty countries. He befriended Che Guevara in Bolivia, Salvador Allende in Chile and Patrice Lumumba in the Congo. He reported on the fighting that broke out between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 after their matches to determine which one of them would qualify for the 1970 World Cup. By the time he returned to Poland he had witnessed twenty-seven revolutions and coups and been sentenced to death four times. The Soccer War is Kapuscinski's story, his eyewitness account of the emergence of the Third World."

FACING MT. KENYA - Jomo Kenyatta
"Jomo Kenyatta, the grandson of a Kikuyu medicine man, was among the foremost leaders of African nationalism and one of the great men of the modern world. In the 1930's he studied at the London School of Economics and took his degree in result of which is this now famous account of his own Kikuyu tribe."

HOUSE OF STONE - Christina Lamb
"One bright morning Nigel Hough, one of the few remaining white farmers in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, received the news he was dreading – a crowd were at the gate demanding he surrender his home and land. To his horror, his family's much-loved nanny Aqui was at the head of the violent mob that then stole his homestead and imprisoned him in an outhouse..."

"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people's stories, are absolutely true . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book."--Ernest Hemingway

SERETSE & RUTH - Wilf & Trish Mbanga
"When the young Seretse Khama, heir to the kingdom of the Bamangwato, was sent by his uncles to read law at Oxford in 1945, no one could foresee that he would fall in love with an English woman - and plunge Bechuanaland (now Botswana) into deep crisis."

"This book is inspired by the courage of a young woman, known variously as ‘Khwezi’ and ‘the complainant’, who took a principled decision to lay a charge of rape against Jacob Zuma, a man who was to her a father-figure, a family friend, a comrade, and the Deputy President of South Africa."

"Ken Saro-Wiwa was an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government - he accuses them of genocide - and of the international oil companies, notably Shell, which he holds responsible for the ecological destruction and terrible industrial pollution of his homelands. Yet, despite a brutal government campaign against the Ogoni, he always advocated peaceful and non-violent protest. Eventually Ken Saro-Wiwa was released as a result of intense international pressure, But in May 1994 he was arrested again and remained in prison until his death."

"As Wamba illustrates with poignant, sometimes amusing detail, American blacks and black Africans are on very different wavelengths, and their views of each other are often as romanticized, stereotyped, and culturally misapprehended as those on the better documented spectrum of white American and European perceptions of Africa."--Alex Shoumatoff

It should take me a while to read those in between the mounds of fiction, but I'm looking forward to them all. In the meantime, anyone like a copy of Aristotle's THE POLITICS?!


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Absolutely shattered today - amazing how much strain the old heart takes when you're pregnant, and a rather enthusiastially high speed tromp en route to a midwife appointment this morning left me crawling under the covers this afternoon for my first daytime nap in weeks. But all is well with the babe (so re-assuring when you hear the little tuckity-tuck of the heartbeat) and so far all is on track. I've been good, and on top of my normal yoga class I've started a special pre-natal one, which is a chance to a) meet other mums-to-be in various stages of pregnancy, and b) a sure-fire way of making time for those pelvic floor exercises - either way, an illuminating experience!

Before I quite succumbed to sleep, I had a good rootle through the latest Mslexia which popped through my letterbox this morning, and consumed a chunk out of my Christmas gift from my lovely husband, who clearly has been paying attention: Jane Brocket of yarnstorm's THE GENTLE ART OF DOMESTICITY - what a dreamy creation.

And of course, the walk back would include a pop-in to Oxfam, where I discovered out of print copies of DESTINATION BIAFRA by Buchi Emecheta and DETAINED: A WRITER'S PRISON DIARY by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (hardback, first edition - hurrah!). Who could resist?!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I've just had a browse through the always impressively long IMPAC/Dublin Award longlist for 2008. One of the judges this year is the excellent Helon Habila. The following are titles on the list either by Africans or set in African countries:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun
José Eduardo Agualusa - The Book of Chameleons
Vassilis Alexakis - Foreign Words
Tahar Ben Jelloun - The Last Friend
Juan Bonilla - The Nubian Prince
Yvette Christianse - Unconfessed
Dave Eggers - What is the What
Aminatta Forna - Ancestor Stones
Pamela Gien - The Syringa Tree
Faiza Guene - Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow
Yasmina Khadra - The Attack
Hisham Matar - In the Country of Men
Marlene van Niekerk - Agaat
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o - Wizard of the Crow

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Monday, January 14, 2008

In December I started routinely listening to an audio book while ironing (I confess, I iron my sheets and pillow cases, and as there was a steady stream of guests, that meant plenty of consistent listening time!). I'm in two minds as to whether I can really count it as "reading," but as it was unabridged, I'm allowing it. My first dabble with audiobooks has been A GOOD MAN IN AFRICA by William Boyd (read by Timothy Spall). This won a Whitbread for best first novel in 1981 and a Somerset Maugham the following year. I hated it.

Morgan Leafy, our "hero" is a cad, and so is just about everyone else. The only strong black African character, Adekunle, is a corrupt bully, and so it goes on... There's lots of bed-hopping, blackmail and office jealousy in the corridors of the British High Commission in Kinjanja. I suppose one can argue that it is a satire, sending up the mighty Commonwealth and its celebrated influence in Africa. And I suppose it does do all that. But, even for ironing, I was hoping for something a little meatier than a book most marked by the almost total non-presence of any real African character. Of course the argument would be that that is precisely the point - for those in colonial administration, the locals were an irrelevance. I know that, I just feel we've moved past that now. And perhaps that's it - that this is a book of its time? Perhaps it is cleverer than I am giving Boyd credit for, and I am just not in the mood. I still don't like it, and don't think it is prize-winning material. But Timothy Spall, as reader, was superb.

Other books with a similar subject matter: IN A FREE STATE by V.S. Naipaul, WIZARD OF THE CROW by Ngugi wa Thiong'o and SEEING DOUBLE by Patrick Wilmot.

My next ironing companion is FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND by Sarah Challis. Let's see what happens this time - perhaps it is the ironing that sours the story?!