Wednesday, February 29, 2012

9. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Title: Palace Walk
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translators: William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny
Original Language: Arabic
Genre: Fiction/Socio-political
Publishers: Anchor Books
Pages: 498
Year of First Publication: 1956
Country: Egypt

Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is the head of the al-Sayyid household on Palace Walk. Ahmad, as he is commonly referred to, is not a man like others. He believes in strict moral uprightness, unwavering respect and obedience and greatly abhors any attempt to challenge his position as the head of the household either from his sons, daughters, or wife. Consequently, he is strict, stern, firm and irascible. And even in a culture where nothing is held in highest esteem than self-preservation and morality of women, he is considered by his friends as extreme. But Ahmad is a man of dual personality: with his friends he is jovial and friendly. He laughs heartily and is known to be a great orator. And when he is with his concubine, the rest of the facade wears off like a rain-beaten make-up. With his family Ahmad is in control. He rules his household with all the strictness he could muster. Amina's relationship with Ahmad is a subservient one where she has to agree with whatever he says and has to think over dialogues several times before approaching him as Ahmad considers women's brain as not fully formed. And unless he is drunk he hardly holds conversation with Amina and suffers no man to mention his daughters' names on his lips (not even the old Shayk who comes once in a while to bless him) or see them before marriage proposals. 

Ahmad's strict behaviour is a cover-up for his weakness; he is afraid that submitting to this weakness would lead to the destruction of his household. For instance, it is due to his insecurity that made him forbid his wife and two girls - Aisha and Khadija - from going out so that after twenty-five years of marriage Amina has not left the confines of the house unless accompanied by him and only to visit her family; she looks at the minarets with awe and wonders how her neighbourhood and Cairo looks like. It is Ahmad's first wife's extramarital affair with a grocer, which led to divorce that occasioned his decision to 'incarcerate' Amina. However, since Haniya, his first wife, harboured great hatred towards Ahmad but never divulged it, it is uncertain if this 'point-of-view' reason is the whole truth. The boys - Yasin, son of Haniya; Fahmy, the law student; and seven-year old Kamal - are not left out of Ahmad's dreadfulness. In fact, so fearful are they of Ahmad, who wants them to be men like he is, that they would use their mother as the conduit to relay their requests to him.

Another sign of his weakness is that Ahmad hides behind anger and shouting to avoid showing his real emotion of love towards his children so that even when he has the best of intentions regarding a decision to deny something to someone he would not expose this reason to the person but would shout his decision with annoyance. Mahfouz writes
Ahmad did not forbid his son what he allowed himself merely out of egoism or authoritarianism, but because he was concerned about him. [284]
Ahmad's strictness and inflexibility was challenged when the widow of Mr. Shawkat, a long-standing family friend, approached him to inform him that she had already chosen Aisha, the youngest daughter, for her son to marry. This was after Ahmad had decreed that Aisha would not marry before Khadija did; and this decision, though harsh on Aisha, was made with the love of his first daughter in mind, of whom he was afraid that all suitors might not choose. For Khadija was not as beautiful as Aisha and every suitor the family had received had approached Aisha. Yet when Mrs Shawkat approached him with the demand and asked him to think about it, Ahmad relaxed and Aisha married. This is to be contrasted with a previous incident that had threatened to shatter the family when on his annual out-of-town business, Yasin had encouraged her (step)mother to visit the al-Husayn's shrine in a nearby mosque. On their way back - she had gone there with the youngest son, Kamal - Amina had been knocked down by a car, fracturing her shoulder. After recuperation, Ahmad had sent Amina out of his home, bringing her back only when almost everyone in the household silently revolted against him and Mrs Shawkat intervened.

The narrative style Mahfouz adopted to describe Ahmad and his behaviour highlighted the contradictions of his words and his deeds and the inequality that exists between the sexes. Amina's behaviour and thinking, perhaps affected by decades of domination, were puerile. She would quickly blame herself for everything than think evil of Ahmad. 

The first part of the story is about the social dynamics of the al-Sayyid family: the rejected engagement of a neighbour's daughter for Fahmy, Yasin's and Ahmad's nights out filled with drinking and sex, quarreling over household chores (before both daughters were married; Mrs Shawkat again married Khadija to his first son), poetry reading, Kamal's infantile conversations at coffee periods, Yasin's marriage and divorce and more. When Yasin, who was having an affair with a flute player Zanuba, saw his father singing and playing the tambourine with the musician Zubayda to whom Zanuba is a foster daughter, he was shocked. Yasin was so dumbstruck by this discovery that when he recovered he deemed himself a man and came to love and appreciate his father the more. It is ironical that upon Ahmad's philandering and his strict adherence to certain traditional principles, he would not take on another wife. This being the result of a bitter experience when his father lost a greater part of his wealth through divorce settlement and the remainder was shared among the remaining four wives upon his death, leaving him - Ahmad - with pittance. Thus, regardless of his generosity - which, together with his resolve to live in peace with his friends and neighbours appealed him to his friends - al-Sayyid was determined to protect his wealth for his children and to continue to provide the comfort that keeps his family together.

The family's bond remained intact until the arrival and camping of British soldiers at their doorstep, this marking the second part of the story. After about 300 pages the tone of the story changed from the domestic life of the al-Sayyids' household to the effects of the Egyptian demonstrations on the household in particular and on the life of Egyptians as a whole. The story was set during the period when the Ottoman Empire was defeated and Egypt became a de facto British protectorate; specifically it is set around the period when the Saad Zaghlul was exiled in Malta in 1919 and students and activists started organising demonstrations on streets. It was during this period of occupation that Ahmad's power on his family was tested. For the first time in his life Ahmad stayed home on the day of the occupation with his family and held conversations with them during breakfast. It remained so until he was told that the soldiers were there to quell demonstrations not to interfere with his usual duties.

The second event occurred when after Fahmy - who had become a member of the organisers of the demonstrations - saved his family: father, Yasin, and Kamal, from a near-death situation at a Friday prayers in a mosque because Yasin had been pointed out by a Shayk as a traitor for consorting with the soldiers. There Fahmy's involvement, which until then was a secret to every member of his household, was revealed by another member who informed the mob that Yasin cannot be a traitor because he personally works with Fahmy on one of the committees. Incensed by this, Ahmad forced Fahmy to give up his involvement by swearing an oath with the Holy Koran, but Fahmy would not; this being the first time he has gone against his father's will. The third event was when, upon returning from one of his a nightly rendezvous with a neighbour's widow, Ahmad was approached by a soldier and led to a place where people who had been rounded up from their night-outs were carrying soil to fill a hole which had been dug by the revolutionists. There he accepted his weakness but was afraid to reveal it; as he thinks of the danger Fahmy has got himself into
Should I reveal my lack of power to her? Should I seek help from her weakness after my power has failed? Certainly not. ... Let her remain ignorant of the whole affair. [448/9]
Even little Kamal who had been warned not to play with the soldiers anymore - as the young boy had developed a liking for the soldiers, singing for them and all - refused to obey this directive from his siblings and mother. Fahmy also lost Maryam when her dignity and morality became questionable after Kamal saw and reported her for consorting with the British soldiers. Thus as the revolution progresses Ahmad's household also underwent its own mini revolutions.

The family of al-Sayyid Ahmad is or could be a metaphor for the pre-revolutionary Egypt where the people respect the government of the day only out of fear and the power it wielded so that when those fears were challenged the leadership began to crumble. Palace Walk is the rallying point for the Egyptian resistance and the British reaction to that resistance. Today, one might associate it with Tahrir Square. 

This book should be read in its cultural context because any move to supplant one's societal values, mores, and laws onto it would greatly diminish its enjoyment. In fact, it is in this mode of read that one would appreciate what Mahfouz is putting across. This is an enjoyable story but one that is difficult to review. Mahfouz did an excellent work and every piece of the story is a relish to read. He showed his understanding of human behaviour through keen observation expressed in precise metaphors and similes. However, whilst reading this story, I kept for a different translation.

Palace Walk, the first of the Cairo Trilogy, was read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge, the Chunkster Challenge and the Africa Literature Reading Challenge.
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Monday, February 27, 2012

SHORT STORY MONDAY: Twins by C. E. Morgan

Twins by C. E. Morgan is the last of the eight stories featured by The New Yorker in their June 14 & 21, 2010 edition. Marie is a young woman with aspirations: she wants to get a degree and become a teacher; currently, with her diploma, she works as a receptionist for a dentist.

The family moved from their polluted Northside home to Knowlton's Corner after a quarrel. And as a racial family with blacks and whites living down south, they are made to deal with some form of racial comments and insinuations now and then. Mike Shaughnessy, the father is Irish and Marie is black. Their sons (the twins) are also colour-divied: Allmon is black and Mickey is white. This somewhat genetic happenstance became curious to the people in the town for both children and adults alike. So that when they go out to play, questions are asked about who their father is and if they are siblings. People, especially from the adults, would dote on Mickey whilst Allmon would stand back; however, the love that existed between the two did not wane. There were times that Mickey had to deny that he is white, claiming that his father is black.

Marie herself had suffered from this. For instance, someone asked her if she had slept with a white man and a black man at the same time and this got her incensed. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that her trucker husband spends less time with the family, she wants to keep the family together. And would do everything even if it is to tolerate some of Mike's eccentricities and bad manners and force her children to play up 'good' behaviour.

Not that it was a difficult to read story but perhaps because of the cultural setting I found it difficult to put the pieces together to get the full understanding of what Morgan was saying. Unlike novels and novellas, short stories require careful reading and the need to grasp each scene and link it with the others germane to its total understanding.

However, Twins is fascinating in a sort of way. The dreamlike ending, whether Allmon and Mickey actually attended the carnival when their father disappointed them or only dreamt about it, kept me thinking. Morgan's language is precise, stripped to its barest necessities.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Cyprian Ekwensi's Burning Grass

Not a war. But then, it was a war. When the forest burns do the locusts stop to say goodbye? [35]

I say there has been a war. If a fish comes out of the water and says the crocodile has one eye, who has been there with him? [35]

Night might convert the old devil into a fiend. [36]

'A maiden is one of those things a man must not trust. By Allah, it is!'
'And the others?'
'A Prince, a river, a knife, and darkness. A prince because his word changes with the weather; a river because in the morning you may wade across it, but in the evening it has swollen and can swallow you. A knife, because it knows not who carries it. Darkness, ha! Who knows what lurks in it. Certainly, all evil things.' [37/38]

He who waits will see what is in the grass. [50]

You pay twenty head of cattle for a maiden because you are excited. Then when your head is cool, you begin to say "If I had known!" [74]

On the day of death, there is no medicine. [118]
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Read the review here

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

8. Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi

Title: Burning Grass
Author: Cyprian Ekwensi
Illustrator: A. Folarin
Genre: Ethnic
Publishers: Heinemann (AWS)
Pages: 118
Year of First Publication: 1962
Country: Nigeria

Cyprian Ekwensi' Burning Grass is a story about the life of Fulani herdsmen narrated through Mai Sunsaye. Mai Sunsaye is a leader of his people and a medicine man, a man who knows how to treat people. One day, whilst with his sons grazing their cattle an incident occurred that would affect all their lives including the children. A Fulani girl a slave of the fearful man Shehu was being chased by a man with whips. Mai Sunsaye paid for Fatimeh with his cattle and ordered man to leave. Thus, Fatimeh became free.

Rikku, the youngest son Mai Sunsaye loved Fatimeh and the girl also showed signs of affection toward him. However, it was Hodio who eloped with her. As a leader of the people of Dokan Toro, Mai Sunsaye had been opposed by Ardo. One day, Ardo's men released a bird with magic which inflicts people with sokugo 
a magic that turned studious men into wanderers, that led husbands to desert their wives, Chiefs their people and sane men their reason.
Drawn by the bird, and with his household burnt, Mai Sunsaye began a journey that would take him to several places, meeting several people, and participating in several activities. He would meet eldest son Jalla, would run from him and move on to Old Chanka and then to New Chanka. His son Rikku would follow him and so would his wife and daughter, in search of their father and husband. Initially, Mai Sunsaye set out after the bird, then the search turned into a search for his son, Jalla, and when Jalla was found it turned into a search for Fatimeh so that his son Rikku, who had suffered emotionally and physically by the elopement, would be well again.

Whilst on this journey, Fatimeh had also gained a reputation, one that grew from people's  fear. She wore only white, traveled with a lion, owned a herd of cattle and journeyed only in the evenings. These added onto her legend. When Fatimeh left with Hodio, they had met Jalla and another incident had happened. At New Chanka, Shehu's men had attacked Hodio and he had defended himself but could do nothing to the re-taking of Fatimeh as a slave. But the woman found her way out and was now living an itinerant life. Mai Sunsaye's adventures would include meeting Fatimeh, who would heal him from the sokugo, meeting Ligu, who would help him fight Shehu and his men for his son Rikku who was arrested when he was running away from Kantuma, bringing his family together and fighting Ardo and his men and to lead the Dokan Toro people. Mai Sunsaye, through this affliction, visited his sons, supervised the marriage of Jalla and witnessed his flight from manliness.

This story portrays the life, struggles, and travails of cattle herdsmen and their aversion towards city life and its sedentariness. The enjoyment of the book is the narration. Events take place at a fast pace and though the reader could make some predictions, because things fitted in so perfectly, it was still a pleasure to read them. The reader can find himself or herself hoping that nothing untoward happen to the old man (Mai Sunsaye) who was oblivious of the cause of his zeal to travel or leave home. Ekwensi employed the traditional narrative style and it suited the story very well. 

Though one is tempted to ask which great medicine man cannot fight sokugo charms or even show any form of magic whiles on his journeys, these don't detract from the story. It is a quick and fan read. Jagua Nana has been touted as Ekwensi's best.
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Cyprian Ekwensi (Source)
About the author: Cyprian Ekwensi ( September 26, 1921–November 4, 2007 ) was a Nigerian writer who stressed description of the locale and whose episodic style was particularly well suited to the short story.

Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi was born at Minna in Northern Nigeria on September 26, 1921. He later lived in Onitsha in the Eastern area.  Ekwensi attended Government College in IbadanOyo StateAchimota College in Ghana, and the School of Forestry, Ibadan, after which he worked for two years as a forestry officer. He also studied pharmacy atYaba Technical InstituteLagos School of Pharmacy, and the Chelsea School of Pharmacy of the University of London. He taught at Igbobi College. He lectured in pharmacy at Lagos and was employed as a pharmacist by the Nigerian Medical Corporation. Ekwensi married Eunice Anyiwo, and they had five children.

Ekwensi began his writing career as a pamphleteer, and this perhaps explains the episodic nature of his novels. This tendency is well illustrated by People of the City (1954), in which Ekwensi gave a vibrant portrait of life in a West African city. It was the first major novel to be published by a Nigerian. Two novellas for children appeared in 1960; bothThe Drummer Boy and The Passport of Mallam Ilia were exercises in blending traditional themes with undisguised romanticism. (Source)

Monday, February 20, 2012

SHORT STORY MONDAY: The Kid by Salvatore Scibona

Salvatore's The Kid is the seventh of the eight stories The New Yorker featured when it provided its best twenty authors under forty years dubbed '20 under 40'. Reviews of the other stories could be read here.

A boy of about five years has suddenly appeared at the Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel Airport, and weeping. Speaking Latvian, the boy is incomprehensible and talks intermittently. Travellers waiting to embark have gathered around him trying to coax him in different languages if he will respond but all prove to no avail. But by some means the boy knows that he is in Germany and that since his mother had warned him that 
A German may appear to be a good fellow, but better to hang him
Janis, the boy, continued crying.

The next section of the story told of Elroy Heflin who had been posted to Latvia and was having an affair with a Latvian lady, Evija. Elroy wanted to marry Evija after she became pregnant but she said she wasn't ready and Elroy was deployed to Afghanistan. Thereafter Elroy began to send mother and son money. Then Elroy received an email to come for Janis as Evija was moving to Spain and she wouldn't go with Janis so Elroy must come for the boy within the month. The narrative then switched between Janis's present state and his father's confusion and frustrations.

Single and without any experience on how to bring his son up, Elroy's journey was filled with personal torture as he looks for a book on parenting to help him adjust; shouting at the boy in that kind of military tone and training. Whereas Elroy's frustration is easy to sympathise with, his final decision to leave a five-year old boy who speaks little English and no German and who seems a bit timid in a strange country is something that is difficult to understand and to forgive. Initially, he thought Janis might not be his child because Evija was dating other men in addition to him especially when he left her to Afghanistan. In fact, there was a Russian theatre fag whom she was dating. But Elroy accepted that the boy resembles him
"... He looks like me, though. A fucking miracle, right? You expect them to follow you in the face, but then you don't think they do, until they get to a certain age, and you see it."
But Heflin would go on to debate with himself, trying to psychologically adjust himself to include Janis, looking for a place to think, to see if things would work according to plan. However, finally he left Janis at the airport as he enplaned to Heathrow. Was it because of his military background? Or was it because he was also deserted by his mother and was raised by an ex-stepfather? Or was it simply because he couldn't raise the boy? But why leave him at an isolated place? I had to reread certain parts of the story because I thought I had missed some lines or had not understood certain passages properly. I really wanted to know why Heflin would do that. 

And when Heflin, having now become a Major, was on his fourth deployment in Afghanistan he received a letter from Evija wishing to see her son and hoping they will be together gain, the three of them.

If you have read this story, kindly share your thoughts on this with me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

7. African Roar 2011 Edited by Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor Hartmann


Title: African Roar 2011
Editors: Emmanuel Sigauke and Ivor Hartmann
Genre: Short Story Anthology
Publishers: StoryTime
Pages: 214 (e-copy)
Year of Publication: 2011

African Roar has become an annual feature in our literary calendar with last year's publication being the second in the series after it debuted in 2010. It gives voices to new and emerging voices in Africa bringing together hitherto not-widely known writers and those whose writings have been recognised and appreciated with awards. The 2011 African Roar Short Story Anthology continued this tradition by bringing together new voices such as Ghana's Isaac Neequaye and established and award-winning writers such as the recent winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, NoViolet Bulawayo. This year's anthology consists of fourteen short stories with varied themes.

The anthology opens with Ruzvidzo Stanley Mupfudzo's Witch's Brew. Mai Chamboko has been described as a witch because she has lost her only child and had become successful in her trade. The narrator, a young club-footed boy who was himself a reject of society, found solace in Mai Chamboko and her cooking. This specially-gifted boy who sees beyond the natural world and could predict events knew that Mai Chamboko's goodness and selflessness would bring her into happiness. So that when her neighbour died and she forgot all that was said about her and went to cook for the family, using her own resources, everybody there gathered who ate the food commended Mai Chamboko. It was when she led the people through a series of traditional songs that the wall between them collapsed. Hands were shaken and past (mis)deeds were forgotten. The events in this story is very typical of many African societies where women who succeed, and especially when such women have no children, are considered witches. The delivery in Stanley's hands was striking especially when it was narrated by a young boy with similar fate.

NoViolet Bulawayo's Main is a graphic representation of Zimbabwe's erstwhile problem when long queues were formed to purchase essential goods, when shortages were the order of the day and restrictions regarding foreign exchange were in full force. This was the period of hyperinflation where a commodity like bread could cost several millions of Zimbabwean Dollars. The story also described police brutalities against the folks. There was the slow-motioned fall of a woman carrying a bundle of goods she didn't want to let go but which eventually rolled into a gutter after her fall, which resulted from having stood in line for too long. I couldn't help but notice that someone in the queue was wearing 'Obama for Change' and this aside having a political connotation also places the story into its setting.

A Writer's Lot by Zukiswa Wanner is a tragicomedy of a writer's life. Phiri is a novelist whose first published work has shot him to fame; however, this has not as yet translated into money. His publishers are delaying his royalties and he has not the money to support his fame. He receives frequent visits from Western journalists who are eager to interview him for their papers and magazines but are unwilling to pay him for the interview; initially Phiri thought this would make him famous. However, with time, he realised that they were just taking advantage of him to earn their living. Some even go ahead to ask for free tour of his town. It was through this frustration - frustration resulting from societal and familial expectations of a famous and published novelist and his inability to meet or play his part - led him into a darker world of connivance and robbery. This piece explores the life of a writer and the numerous entities that feed off such a person; the frustration and tedium that characterises the writing process, publishing and post-publishing period; and how 'overloaded' expectations can lead to destruction.

Grace Chirima has been sent abroad by his grandfather to further her education. As a patriarch, Grace's grandfather has sacrificed a lot for his family both near and afar. As Grace was trying to adjust to life in England, things suddenly changed: overnight hyperinflation in Zimbabwe had rendered all savings useless and her grandfather had also suffered a stroke. Now Grace must work in England to support her family home. As Grace goes through all these she began to miss his family back home wondering how best she could be useful to them, is it when she went home or stayed abroad? And she must depend on her flat-mate to keep her going. Hajira Amla's Longing for Home is a sad story which began on a platform of patriotism but ended on a slow acquiescence to the forces of nature and of man.

After marriage, Chukwudi promised to turn away from his hedonistic ways and debauchery and to stay true to his marriage vows though his wife believed otherwise and always asked him to protect himself should he involve himself in illicit affairs. It was at this International writers' conference that this promise was tested to its limit. Having been laughed at and pestered by friends Chukwudi tried as much as he could to stave off any amorous approaches and thoughts. But what happens when a woman bent on having her way with him got him into a room? Whilst trying to have it with this woman, he was chanced upon by the loudmouth of the group. Dejected for having failed and having broken his promise though nothing physical had occurred yet, Chukwudi left. Lose Myself by Uche Peter Umez is one funny story and a test of faithfulness. Did he fail because he succumbed though he never actualised it or he failed because he would have? The answers rest with the reader and perhaps the gender of the reader.

In Murenga Joseph Chikowero's Uncle Jeffrey a man's manhood had become limp and his fears had multiplied from a pending results from an AIDS test and a possible black magic wreaked upon him by a floosie he visited in a fleabag, when a police raid prevented him from paying the service provider and leaving behind one of his suede shoes - a personal item required in such black magic. Pestered by his wife to perform his connubial duty the man was caught between telling the wife the truth and possibly wrecking his family or finding excuses for the next three months when the second results would be in. Even then, there is also the problem of his limp manhood. It was this dilemma that took him to his village and a visit to his uncle, whilst all the time clutching onto his phone like it was an extension of his appendages, waiting for that important call from his doctor, and a tablet that would 'resurrect' the limped penis. Murenga's story would make the reader laugh especially when Murenga wouldn't leave his phone idle and his wife wouldn't stop pursuing him.

In The Times by Dango Mkandawire, a man has lost his son to the dreadful HIV/AIDS disease and has resolved to use the only thing he knows, writing, to expose licentious behaviour that has become the major means of spreading the disease. Caught in this name-and-shame trap are heads of parastatal institutions, CEOs, pastors and more. Richard, the owner of The Times newspaper, regards himself as Thomas Hast reincarnated. Every Friday people gather at news stands to get copies or crane their necks to read about the latest catch. As is common with such jobs, Richard receives threats from these big men who promise to take him out. When the General director of Malawi Water Board got the hint that his story would be in that Friday's Times he did everything possible to 'kill' the news.

Snakes will Follow You by Emmanuel Sigauke takes a look at prophesies delivered by leaders of spiritual churches. Or that's how I read this piece. Shumba had attended one of these spiritual churches with his brother's wife. The prophet had told him that some people in his family who don't want to see him progress are using witchcraft to destroy him and that they would be appearing to him in the form of snakes unless he moves to Harare or another town to continue his education. When a week later Shumba saw a sanke whilst reading Julius Caesar, he shouted for his sister-in-law. She confirmed and provided her own interpretations and commentaries on what should be done. The story also explores the relationship between the Shumba and his brother's wife who was in need in of a child.

Frank is a philosophy lecturer who fell in love with Beatrice. Beatrice's mother disapproved of the marriage; as a single mother she wanted a man rich enough to look after the family and her daughter and she saw it not in a university lecturer but in the military man. Ella, Beatrice's sister and a former student of Frank, is suddenly sick; she does not talk but when she does her words are incoherent. Beatrice called on Frank to help her sister and he obliged. The discomfort between Beatrice's mother and Frank was palpable anytime Frank comes to the house. But there is more: Beatrice's husband, the soldier, has something to do with Ella's situation. He had linked her to the Head of State and the Head of State had died in her presence. This is perhaps an allusion to Sani Abacha, the Nigerian Head of State whom, it is alleged, died from bouts of sex. Emmanuel Iduma's Out of Memory has a tinge of sadness running through. The personal discomfort of the people involved was clear. Beatrice wants to talk to Frank but Frank is almost taciturn in her presence and wants to push her out of his mind; Beatrice's mother sounds remorseful towards Frank but he pretends it is inconsequential. The beauty of the story is the tension it generates and the things not said.

Ivor Hartmann's Diner Ten is a unique story not only amongst the anthology; its uniqueness transcends the borders of the anthology into the sphere of writing, in general. Is it a science fiction or a fable? There is no best way of defining this story. Diner Ten is about Armageddon from a cockroach's point of view. Radic is a survivor and a helper. He's known by all his people and famous for his near-death escapes. He sees humans as intruders when they come out at night to have dinner. It was this one time that the human opened up a gaseous substance that has a picture of his ilk on it and sealed all openings. Written from the point of view of Radic, Ivor takes a tour of how these animals (or insects) see themselves and see humans.

Continuing the trend of presenting Zimbabwe's political and economic crises is Mbonisi P. Ncube's Chanting Shadows. This story is about the land reforms that sought to bring back some lands under black control. And here there is a clash of loyalty to a friend and to an identity. The issue of who is a Zimbabwean is also subtly raised. McNamara is a white farmer who describes himself as a Zimbabwean. In fact he is one in as many ways as a Zimbabwean could be defined. He was born in the country and has lived on this land all his life. Consequently, he is also linked to the land. His friend Mzala Joe, whom he brought up when the man had nowhere to turn to was caught between loyalty to his boss and friend and to the gathering youth who had already killed and destroyed some white farmers and their farms. As a show of friendship Mzala Joe stood by his friend against the raging youth and the two died together. In death they were considered as friends and not as a boss and a servant, thus overcoming the colour barrier.

Snake of the Niger Delta by Chimdindu Mazi-Njoku is about the developmental divide between the oil producing region of Nigeria and the country's capital. It shows how a precocious young boy coming from the region grew up to quell one of such fraudsters who have made defrauding the region their major occupation.

Ayodele Morocco-Clarke's Silent Night Bloody Night is a story of revenge. In this story the author hardly takes a stance or makes a judgement. The narrator, Ameze, is the daughter of a rich cocoa farmer in Nigeria. The family had travelled to their village in Benin-City for the Christmas. During their first night the house was invaded by armed robbers consisting of people whose parents had at one point or another worked for Ameze's father on his cocoa farm and had been, supposedly, cheated by the man. Thus, the leaders of the gang saw it fit to exact their vengeance on the man and his family. What ensued is bloody as the robbers demanded that the man slept with his daughter else they kill.

Water Wahala by Isaac Neequaye is a story about water shortage in an area in Accra. I read this story almost like an article because I live very close to the setting and I have a first hand experience of what the writer was describing; however, what made Neequaye's story exceptional and worth the read is the tension that water shortages could cause in the household between a man and his wife. It also explores how local politicians, most especially Member Parliaments, would often use the most needed amenity to campaign for votes but would end up doing nothing or would find that the problem is bigger than they had imagined. Kweku used to monitor the level of water in the tank. However, when the children leave for school that chore is handed over to his wife Agyapomaa. However, this time, Agyapomaa told Kewku that they had run-out of water when what is left could not cover both cooking and bathing: a choice had to be made. And Kweku had to go looking for water. Pestered by Agyapomaa's relentless demand (via phone calls and text messages) that there should be water by midday and the water-supplier's penchant for tricks, failure and outright lies, Kweku found himself between a situation he has absolutely no control over and Agyapomaa's simmering anger.

This collection is fun to read and addresses issues germane not only to the continent but also to humanity in a general sense. Like most anthologies some of the stories are more enjoyable than others though as a whole this anthology would bring to the reader a satisfying reading experience. A kindle version is available on amazon.

Monday, February 13, 2012

SHORT STORY MONDAY: Dayward by ZZ Packer

ZZ Packer's Dayward is set in the period when the emancipation law has been passed and blacks in America were free to leave their masters and live as freed people. Lazarus and his deaf sister, Mary Celeste, though free, are on the run from the Five Daughters. And Miss Thalia, the owner of Five Daughters had fulfilled her promise of setting Kittredge's dog on them after they had had a head-start because she considered
the African race an ungrateful lot of thieves for deserting once emancipation came around. "All I got to say," ... "is that we always fed and clothed you slaves."
Fourteen year old Lazarus and nine year old Mary Celeste were on a journey to reunite with their only surviving relative in New Orleans but first they had to survive the journey and the dogs. Using tales told them by their parents like the man who suffocated and killed a dog by wrapping around his some homespun from his shirt and ramming it down the dog's throat, the siblings managed to survive but not without struggle. It is on this journey that we get to know what had happened to them. Mary Celeste was not born deaf; her deafness developed gradually when she complained of hearing sounds that later became 'a strict calm of long corridors, unaccompanied by anything.' Instead of calling white folks' doctor, Miss Thalia and Mr Thompson called the county's veterinarian, who specialised in horse carbuncles. He had advised 'Master and Miss to refuse to tolerate the girl's melancholy and to end her bed rest.' Gradually Mary Celeste became deaf. Packer also filled us in on how their parents had died. She writes
Lazarus thought on it all. How their father had come to be killed, not from his ear being nailed to the post but from scratching it day and night until it pussed over. How their mother had run off into the woods, witless and mad, after their father's death. She'd been gone nearly three days, then caught pneumonia and died and died before she could be properly whipped for attempting to escape - if churning around the same copse of trees less than four miles off could be called escaping.
Having also rammed his clothed hand into Miss Kittredge's dog's throat and suffocating it to death, Lazarus had to endure an infected and putrefying hand all through the journey aided by Mary and feeding on black berries. But they would finally find Aunt Minnie with her seven children.

The story is not about the what happened in the end, the reunion which itself was nothing spectacular for Minnie had her own problems; however, Packer used the journey was used to discuss the plight of blacks during the days when they were mere properties and also, perhaps, as a metaphor even in today's world. This story reminded me of Toni Morrison. ZZ Packer's story is a haunting one but then that's the history of Americans of African descent. Currently, some African Americans don't want to be referred to by that name  as they find it discriminatory.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things

It wasn't an accusing, protesting silence as much as a sort of estivation, a dormancy, the psychological equivalent of what lungfish do to get themselves through the dry season, except that in Estha's case the dry season looked as though it would last forever. [12]

Though you couldn't see the river from the house anymore, like a seashell always has a sea-sense, the Ayemenem House still had a river-sense. [30]

"We are prisoners of war," Chacko said. "Our dreams have been doctored. We belong nowhere. We sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never be allowed ashore. Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never important enough. To matter" [52]

Some things come with their own punishments. Like bedrooms with built-in cupboards. They would learn more about punishment soon. That they came in different sizes. That some were so big they were like cupboards with built-in bedroom. You could spend your whole life in them, wandering through dark shelving. [109]

It didn't matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again. [218]

He still had about him the aura of rage that even murder cannot quell. [224]

It is unreasonable to expect a person to remember what she didn't know had happened. [251]

When you re-create the image of man, why repeat God's mistakes? [285]

Screams died in them and floated belly up, like dead fish. [292]

Biology designed the dance. Terror timed it. Dictated the rhythm with which their bodies answered each other. As though they knew already that for each tremor of pleasure they would pay with an equal measure of pain. As though they knew that how far they went would be measured against how far they would be taken. [317]
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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

6. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things (Harper Perennial, 1997; 321) by Arundhati Roy won the Man Booker prize in 1997 amid some controversies. Some have gone ahead to describe the book harshly, whilst others have praise the insight of Roy. One thing is however clear The God of Small Things is a book that opens up a society exposing all its rotten innards and demands that we choose but choose wisely.

In this novel, Roy examines the lives we live and the choices we make on the lives of the people around us, mostly on the innocent children. She also examines hypocrisy, more especially political hypocrisy, and betrayal by the state, friends, loved ones, and family. Estha and Rahel are more than just fraternal twins. Their soul reach out for each other. One day, whilst on their way to pick their uncle's - Chacko's - daughter, Estha was sexually molested by a hairy man who offered him a cold soft drink. Estha lost his innocence and something lively in him died. And something in Rahel also died. This was the first of many 'deaths' and betrayals that were to occur in the lives of these children of seven years. Their mother, Ammu, who had divorced their drunk father was hardly recognised or considered by the family including his Oxford-graduate brother, Chacko. When Ammu fell in love with Velutha, an untouchable who was supposed to occupy the lowest of the rungs in life, Baby Kochama, Ammu's aunt moved into action. In fact, Velutha himself was betrayed by his father Vellya Paapen, who reported the incident to Mamachi, Ammu's mother and overheard by Margaret Kochama, her aunt. He was also betrayed by the political system led by Comrade K.N.M. Pillai, who disowned him as a member of his party tor advance his own selfish ambition, and was finally betrayed by Estha (and Rahel), two children whom he had loved and cared for and helped.

To Baby Kochama - a woman who unable to get the man she wanted, a man for whose love she went to a convent and changed denominations, did not marry again - such an abominable union portends doom for the whole family, it tarnishes their purity and their image and so she schemed to thwart it and in doing so got an innocent man killed by the overly enthusiastic police force who seem to work for one caste against the other. Baby Kochama had gone to the police to lie about the relationship between Velutha and Ammu, describing it as rape. She also charged Velutha for adoption, after Estha, Rahel and Sophie Mol - Chacko's daughter who was visiting with her mother Margaret Kochama after the death of the latter's second husband, Joe, went missing for several hours. However, when Ammu told the truth to the policemen and was confirmed by Estha and Rahel, the police officer, Inspector Thomas Mathew, knew they had committed murder and that murder was heaped on Baby Kochama. However, everything would disappear if the twins could identify Velutha as the man who kidnapped them. The kids who were there when the police arrived at the History House and beat Velutha to comatose - there again something died in them - knew the truth and spoke it and almost defended it. But Baby Kochama, the schemer, threatened them with the murder of Sophie Mol, for on the previous evening whilst leaving home to the home they had created at the History House, because home has become unbearable with their mother shouting at them and locked in a room by their uncle, their boat had capsized and Sophie Mol had drowned because unlike them she could not swim. Baby Kochama presented to the children a jail term for Ammu or identifying Velutha as the culprit, after all the policeman had told her that Velutha, after the heavy beating would not survive the night. And Estha was chosen to do the identification. And on that day the last living thing in Estha died.  

Several individuals played a part in the destruction of the young souls including Comrade Pillai who betrayed Velutha when he needed him most and used his death as a launch pad for his Communist party campaigns and demonstrations; Chacko who allowed himself to be manipulated by Baby Kochama to beat and sack Ammu out of their home, and ordered Estha to be returned to his father; Papaachi who saw no interest in educating a woman and so Ammu, an inherently brilliant girl, was left uneducated and Mamaachi who only considered Chacko as her child. Again, the traditional practice that give women no chance to develop their abilities, that patriarchal system that considers them to be inferior to men was at play in this story.

The story is told back and forth, between an older Estha who was considered mad because he never talks and goes on long walks everyday, an older divorced Rahel who had come from America, where she had migrated to with her husband, when Baby Kochama told her about Estha and his seeming madness and the younger Estha and Rahel. As events unravel, one has the feeling of something destructive was hovering on the horizon. It makes one think of rape and others. And this builds up due to Roy's narrative style which drops hints of what is approaching and also by presenting the state of Estha and Rahel in the first pages. Because Roy chose to tell the story mostly from the point-of-view of Rahel, some of the words were written in the way they were pronounced. She tried as much as possible to carry the feeling of childhood to the reader. 

The God of Small Things is many things. It is the destruction of a life too young to understand its choices; it is the decision of society to keep people at a low level of life where they can expect nothing but the crumbs from once-in-a-while benevolent privileged folks. It is also about how people take advantage of the poor and how individualistic people could be. Above all it is a book of tragedy.
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Read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge

Monday, February 06, 2012

SHORT STORY MONDAY: Lenny Hearts Eunice by Gary Shteyngart

In this short story Shteyngart takes a look at a near-futuristic America where diet, health, technology, credit (or finances) all matter, through the awkward or mismatched relationship between Eunice Parker and Leonard (Lenny) Abramovic. In this near-futuristic world individuals are rapidly evolving (have already become Post Humans different from humans) and the workers at the Post-Human Services have been told to
keep a diary, to remember who we were, because at every moment our brains and synapses are being rebuilt and rewired with maddening disregard for our personalities, so that each year, each month, each day, we transform into different people, utterly unfaithful iterations of our original selves, of the drooling kids in the sandbox. 
But not Lenny. Lenny had just returned from Rome to his bio-tech company that deals in selling immortality to High Net Worth Individuals and where he works as Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G). In Rome, Lenny had given in to all sorts of indulgences, consuming all sorts of wine and food: pig jowls of the bucatini all'amatriciana, plate of spaghetti with spicy eggplant, rabbit drowned in olive oil. Unconcerned about his health in a world where humans have scientifically evolved to Post-Humans where youth is all that is needed to survive, where thirty-nine is old, Lenny's return to his New York office was met with a demotion; because he reminds the people of death. Because he wasn't looking younger and for a company that sells immortality his state is bad for business. In fact, his friend had just been sacked for turning forty and perhaps looking old. In this world that Shteyngart described people are always monitoring their adrenal stress index, insulin levels, methylation and homocysteine levels, testosterone and estrogen levels and for employees their results are always screaming from screens including their moody + stress indicators, 'which was always supposed to read "positive/playful/ready to contribute" but which, with enough input from competitive co-workers, could be changed to "one moody betch today" or "not a team playa this month."' 

Through this, Shteyngart provides a funny almost comic look at recent American culture of diet-watching, body-weighing, credit-rating, body-building, selling-anything and more. Individuals take Niacin tablets, supplements, indulge in de-stressing, and breathing-right activities all to look fit and live forever. Everything that is to be done must contribute towards a healthy life so that even love is thought of in terms of boosting the biochemical compositions of the body. When Lenny told Joshie, his forever-young boss, that he has thinks he is in love, Joshie said:
It's great for pH, ACTH, LDL, whatever ails you. As long as it's good, positive love, without suspicion or hostility.
Lenny is sex-starved, probably, and had met the beautiful Eunice at the de Tonino bar in Rome. There they had struck acquaintance, Eunice never thought much about it but Lenny was all for it including having some romantic ideas when Eunice took him home but nothing materialised. Per Eunice's letters to an unidentified Precious Panda Lenny was old, not in the league of gentlemen she would date, a sloven who do not even know the proper way to brush his teeth or button his shirt, a non-modern person who loves reading 'Tolesoy' instead of streaming; very much unlike her former boyfriend Ben whom she left because he was too good for her. So that there was a great divergence between what Eunice and Lenny thought of each other. Yet Lenny never gave up and kept on writing her to entice her. Eunice finally decided to get closer to her parents in America and having nowhere to live went to live with Lenny and a relationship developed from that though Eunice was still her snobbish and 'modern' self.

The American ethic mostly seen in trade and commerce was profoundly portrayed in this story. One reason for Lenny's demotion, aside his health, and perhaps the most important or only reason, was his poor sales record when he went to Rome, selling to only one person in that year. But Lenny is running out on cash because of poor management by his brokers who had invested his funds in loss-making companies and can no longer afford his beta-dechronification necessary for him to look young. Back in New York and going back on his health-regiment Lenny almost became his pre-Rome self and earned his seat back at the office. He also got a client who wanted to buy eternity for himself and his children and Lenny was explaining what he was doing
I painted him a three-dimensional picture of millions of autonomous nanobots inside his well-preserved squash-toned body, extracting nutrients, supplementing, delivering, playing with the building blocks, copying, manipulating, reprogramming, replacing blood, destroying harmful bacteria and viruses, reversing soft-tissue destruction, preventing bacterial infection, repairing DNA.
And the test carried on this individual is fun to read: Willingness to Live Test; The H-Scan Test to measure the subject's biological age; The Willingness to Persevere in Difficult Conditions Test; The Infinite Sadness Endurance Test; The Response to Loss of Child Test. In the end it was clear that what this company is dealing in is snake oil.

The divide between Euro culture and American culture was stated and with no knowledge in such issues a bold statement cannot be made here. For instance, it was almost clear that these longevity, immortality, ultra-health care issues are American fantasies and idiosyncrasies that has nothing to do with Eurpoeans. The book is a reminder of Atwood's Oryx and Crake with tinges of Orwell's 1984.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

NEW PUBLICATION: How Shall We Kill the Bishop and Other Stories by Lily Mabura

Slated to be published in March 2012 is Lily Mabura's short story anthology How Shall We Kill the Bishop and other Stories. The title story How Shall We Kill the Bishop was shortlisted for the 11th Caine Prize for African Writing in 2010. I read the story but got lost along the way; however, I know of other individuals who loved the story. The challenge is now to revisit this short story and have a second reading.

From the Publishers:
An artist mourning for a brother who died in Bosnia, a restless young woman alerted to the possibility of life outside her tight knit community, an unemployed lawyer lingering in a Kenyan hospital - Lily Mabura's first collection of short stories deals with characters whose fates fascinates and alarm. 

Set in Kenya, the USA, Namibia and the Congo, these brief, evocative tales demonstrate an acute sensitivity to the globalised trajectories which increasingly distinguished our world.

One of Kenya's most promising authors, Lily Mabura's Story 'How shall we Kill the Bishop?' was shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing. 
Visit the publishers site and download Man in ultramarine Pyjamas for free. The book is published under the African Writers Series.

Brief Bio: Lily Mabura is an African and African Diaspora scholar and writer at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her literary awards include the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and Kenya's National Book Week Literary Award. She has published several short stories, a novel, The Pretoria Conspiracy (Focus Books, 2000), and three children's books. She is currently working on a fictional exploration of Kenya's 2007-08 post-election violence, Man from Magadi. (source: A Life in Full and other stories)

Friday, February 03, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Veronique Tadjo's As the Crow Flies

We live in a world where we can tell neither head nor tail. We live in a world that jeers at you and proffers insults, an incestuous world that robs you of hope. [23]

It is definitely a century that hands its head in shame. Our elders have been called impotent, and we are accused of being 'limp'. [31]

We are all sick and tired of this suffocation, of this monarch lording it over his people. Everybody can feel that this is a sterile century. Even love is finding it hard to thrive. [31]

Somewhere, a young man wallows in his suffering - his wound so deep he cannot draw a distinction between love and destruction. When he fights, he wounds his adversary like a fighter in search of victory. [59]

His pain is so great that he wants to punish all women, but I tell him, 'No, love is the colour of hope. Bitter today, sweet tomorrow. You should not throw away your wealth of tenderness and let the honey-filled caresses dry up. Do not be wicked just to prove who you are, just to expose your wounds to the skies.' [59]
____________
Read the review here. The entire book could be quoted if one desires for the prose is exquisite.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

January in Review and Projections for February

Most of my readings this year would be challenge-related as I pursue the target of 70 books. I have tried committing myself to 50 pages a day, regardless of the font size or volume of the book and somehow it is working. Weekends are used for rounding up reads especially those that are less than 150 pages to completion. 

Comparatively, I read more books (9) in January 2011 than I have read in January 2012 (7, excluding single stories). However, the total pages read (1533) for last year January is less than the total pages (1755, excluding single stories and the first review for 2012 which was read in December 2011) for this month. Books read and or reviewed in January are:
  1. So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba (read in 2011, Top 100 Books Reading Challenge)
  2. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (Top 100 Books Reading Challenge)
  3. I Write What I Like by Steve Biko
  4. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (Top 100 Books Reading Challenge, Chunkster Challenge)
  5. As the Crow Flies by Veronique Tadjo (African Reading Challenge)
  6. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Top 100 Books Reading Challenge)
  7. African Roar 2011 edited by Ivor Hartmann and Emmanuel Sigauke
  8. Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi
In addition I read a number of single stories which were reviewed for Short Story Monday and are part of the 100 shots of shorts challenge:
  1. The Pilot by Joshua Ferris
  2. Here We Aren't, So Quickly by Jonathan Safran Foer
  3. What You Do Out There, When You're Alone by Philipp Meyer
  4. The Entire Northern Side was Covered with Fire by Rivka Galchen
  5. The Mistress's Dog by David Medalie
  6. Hitting Budapest by NoViolet Bulawayo
In February I would continue with the intersecting-challenge books. My first read will be Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfuoz, a 498-page book that qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge, the Africa Reading Challenge and the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge. I want to read Harare North, a non-challenge book, because it has been on my shelf for sometime now. Again, there will be - not sure though - some Morrisons to be read. I have Paradise, Her Bluest Eyes and Sula  on my shelf. Again I really want to read Jose Saramago's Blindness. I am running out of African-authored books on my shelf and need to go book-buying soon, else my reading might get skewed this month or year. Whatever I read, I hope February would be as fruitful as January has been.

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Njoroge, Kihika, & Kamiti: Epochs of African Literature, A Reader's Perspective

Source Though Achebe's Things Fall Apart   (1958) is often cited and used as the beginning of the modern African novel written in E...