Wednesday, June 25, 2014

NEW PUBLICATION: Gonjon Pin and Other Stories

The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014 brings together the five shortlisted authors' stories along with 12 other stories from the best new writers. Insightful, arresting and entertaining - this collection reflects the richness and range of current African writing. 

Caine Prize 2014 Shortlisted Stories:
Phosphorescence Diane Awerbuck (South Africa)
Chicken Efemia Chela (Ghana/Zambia)
The Intervention Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe)
The Gorilla’s Apprentice Billy Kahora (Kenya)
My Father’s Head Okwiri Oduor (Nigeria)

The Caine Prize African Writers’ Workshop Stories 2014:
The Lifebloom Gift Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya)
The Gonjon Pin Martin Egblewogbe (Ghana)
As A Wolf Sweating Your Mother’s Body Clifton Gachagua (Kenya)
Pam Pam Lawrence Hoba (Zimbabwe)
Lily in the Moonlight Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria)
Running Elnathan John (Nigeria)
The Murder of Ernestine Masilo Violet Masilo (Zimbabwe)
All the Parts of Mi Isabella Matambanadzo (Zimbabwe)
Blood Work Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende (Zimbabwe)
The Sonneteer Philani A Nyoni (Zimbabwe)
Eko Hotel Chinelo Okparanta (Nigeria)
Music from a Farther Room Bryony Rheam (Zimbabwe)

Tendai Huchu is the author of The Hairdresser of Harare. He was interviewed here. Martin Egblewogbe is the author of Mr Happy and the Hammer of God. He was also interviewed here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

#Quotes from Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong

Jeane had once said that men were not like women, that once they had possessed a woman it was as thought nothing had happened and they just wanted to move on to another. [64]

The difference between living and dying was not one of quality, only of time. [67]

Constant shelling is a cure for impure thoughts. I never think of women. They belong to a different existence. [146]

Men are such timid creatures, really, You have to be gentle with them. Make them feel safe. To begin with, anyway. [235]

They boasted in a mocking way of what they had seen and done; but in their sad faces wrapped in rags he saw the burden of their unwanted knowledge. [270]

It's better to have a malign providence than an indifferent one. [278]

I heard a voice. There was something beyond me. All my life I had lived on the presumption that there was no existence beyond...flesh, the moment of being alive...then nothing. I had searched in superstition... Rats. But there was nothing. Then I heard the sound of my own life leaving me. Then I believed in the wisdom of what other men had found before me...I saw that those simple things might be true...I never wanted to believe in them because it was better to fight my own battle. You can believe in something without compromising the burden of your own existence. [284]

It's true that loyalty can't be partial, it must be complete. [308]

I have tried to resist the slide into this unreal world, but I lack the strength. I am tired. Now I am tired in my soul. [403]

Which human being out of all those you have met would you choose to hold your hand, to hold close to you in the beginning of eternity? [432]

Where there is real love between people, as there was between all of us, then the details don't matter. Love is more important than the flesh-and-blood facts of who gave birth to whom. [473]

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

292. Testament of the Seasons by Mawuli Adzei

Testament of the Seasons (2013) is an anthology of poems in fourteen segments by Mawuli Adzei collected over a period of three decades. The poems cover wide ranging issues: from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the bombing of the World Trade Centre; from the Arab Springs to the Cold War and Holocaust; from love to identity and race and death. Mawuli's anthology consist of poems about issues that has affected his world views. He talks about the hegemony of the West as wells as the tribalism at home and his love for his people. Mawuli would not be bolted to a single place; he is 'neither a signifyin' monkey/ Nor a simulating chameleon'. Yet, he is a member of his clan; their mirror image for if you just touch my face/ You touch a clan.

The anthology opens with Winds of Change - a collection of poems about the recent seemingly stochastic uprisings that swept large parts of North Africa and Middle East. The segment opens with Springtime, a poem about the sudden and uncontrollable political revolutions and evolutions whose effects are still being observed and felt across the world. The cause and effects of what was christened Arab Spring by the media is as varied and motley as any random event could possibly be. Today even though Tunisia - where the Spring possibly sprang - may seem to have calmed with a new president and a new government, Egypt, Libya, and Syria - whose president has won a third term in the country's first multi-elections - cannot boast of same. Egypt has had two presidents since Mubarak stepped down and Muslim Brotherhood, whose president Morsi is in jail, was banned by the interim military government. Libya lost its president but has descended into chaos. Furthermore, the problems in Yemen and Bahrain are hardly ever mentioned in the media. When The new dawn stole upon their nightmares/ With fire enough to power their adrenalin/ Indignation ripe like mangoes (LI-III) the people thought Nirvana would be the end of their agitations, for clouds gather before the rains. But did the poet see that this 'ripe indignation' could lead to rains? If so then the Snowball-Fireball springing on a ruthless route march have not ceased or abated. What do you expect if you want to get rid of dinosaurs with bayonets? In Dance of the Dinosaurs the poet describes how these long-serving 'tyrants' or 'dinosaurs', a term which brings to mind ancient, huge, and fearful, lost their importance; how their praise songs faded and yet held onto their browning memories. The poem deals with the disillusionment of these rulers who having overstayed their welcome refused to leave or to see that the grains in their hourglasses have long remained empty. However, if these leaders were disillusioned of their importance, then the demonstrators were three times worse. For in the geopolitics of the world, it is not who is right or wrong. But who is supported by the mighty. Current events provide a plausible platform for comparison. But Arabian countries are not all about revolutions and struggle. In Arabian Nights the poet presents a view dichotomous to what we are bombarded with on our screens daily. He presents the beautiful landscapesthe towering minaretsthe young men with stringed instruments and how they embrace the new day/ Not with clenched fists anymore/ But with open arms and bouquets. This is the poet's own Nirvana. It is his hopes that the countries return to this state after these crises.

As if simulating the escalating dissatisfaction and amongst the world's population (Occupy Wallstreet and others), nature has not been too lenient. This is captured in Nature's Fury, which deals with the recent devastating natural disasters whose imprints go beyond the landscapes of the affected countries into the minds of people. The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean Tsunami cannot be easily forgotten. Ever since man appeared on earth, dominance has been his priority. This dominance even has biblical support. However, no matter what man has done, his scientific discoveries and his creation of malevolent military and civilian accouterments, man has not been able to tame inclement weather. When the winds and the seas and the earth itself become malevolent, man becomes a thing played around in nature's fury. But does this show our weakness? Or is our ability, as a common organism, to rise after every such devastation a sign of our resilience? In Kamikaze, the poet talks about this common humanity as a single organism; about humanity's resilience in the midst of such storms. 
They'll come back again and again, these marauding waves
Bearing the anger and swords of malevolent sea gods
Gathering the living, ghosts and tombstones as trophies
To their unfathomable depths
And so, these time-tested warriors
Who have outlived the great atomic bomb
Will knead survival into a fine art
Domesticate these storms in calabashes
Hang them on stakes in the rice-fields as scarecrows
And haul traumatic minds back to saner ground
But is our survival only a reprieve from nature, preserving us for another time of lashings? Or is it that man's will to dominate and domesticate is indestructible? Voodoo Dance - the second poem in the section - goes beyond the narrative of the hurricane that destroyed Haiti and from which they have never been able to rise. It traces the history of that country, its formation and its destruction - from those brave leaders who fought against colonisation like the sea to those whose reign became like the tsunami  and destroyed the country. The poem shows a retrogression, a deterioration in our culture; we can no longer invoke the gods to our side, bravery has been lost and fear now reigns. We are no longer ourselves, we have become what others want us to be and in so doing have lost it all. The poet in his last line imitates the breaking of our valour in the use of the 'k' sound: Which quakes and shakes and breaks without provocation.

Africa is a continent of contradictions. Filled with a large reserve of natural resources, the countries constitute one of the poorest in the world and the most prone to war. Armed conflicts have devastated the continent, rendering huge areas inaccessible to development or depleted of vital human resource, making the natural resource useless. This contradictions of wealth and violence and/or poverty is what the poet captures in Madness with a Method and also with the first poem in this section Madness. The sense of antagonism is captured as The gods glower down the deathscapes of the Great Lakes, which is Conrad's ancestral heartlands of darkness and Leopold's heirloom of diamond and ivory. Yet this crucible of a continent is seething with mysteries/ Mired in malignant outgrowths of happy madness. The inability of a maligned people to stick together has become the reality of Africa. Though the continent seems to be a homogeneous admixture of violence, the causes are heterogeneous. For sometimes, the madness is just that, madness; the genocide of Burundi and Rwanda are examples. But in the depths of Congo there is a capitalist method to the madness of war and unrest. For in the midst of all the wars, international companies are able to suck away the wealth - gold, diamond, uranium etc - out of the country with their local collaborators who are offered pittance, mostly weapons of war, to kill a specious enemy borne out of their warped minds. They work to overthrow intelligent leaders who can match them boot for boot and install those whose thirst for wealth and hatred for their own people is unsurpassable. Like the killing of Patrice Lumumba and the coming to power of Mobutu Sesseseko whose story is captured in The Leopard's Demise. Mobutu's wealth - the subject of this piece - is legendary. It is almost passing into mythological tales. Yet it is true. It is the vanity of such personal wealth aggrandisement that the poet seeks to point out in this poem. In another angle, the poet demonstrates how the individual cannot outlive the society or community. That we may come and go as people but our people (in terms of humanity) will forever remain. For in the end, this leader of the DR Congo, famed to be wealthier than his country, died the death of mortals. And as is expected He took nothing along -/ Neither gold nor silver nor bauxite -/ This kleptocrat without compare. When the people are unable to tolerate the theft of their common wealth, when they see the gap between the leader and themselves widening, they agitate and this agitation leads to destruction. Yet, more often than not the leaders of the uprisings or springs themselves have personal agendas. Inspiring the people to revolt, they cunningly take up power and deliver a blow harder than the previous leader, squashing the hopes and aspirations of the people. In Paradise Lost, the poet bemoans the destruction of Somalia, which is considered to be one of the very few failed states in the world. Yet, we need not go to Somalia for such examples. The Arab Spring, America's invasion of Iraq, all give us unique examples of how states can easily fail. Egypt today has found its way into the hands of a former military leader (like Hosni Mubarak); Libya today is worst than it was under Gaddafi. In the second stanza of the Eclipse over Abidjan, the poet writes
These people broke their virginity once
When God was not watching
Now they hanker after the full harvest of libidos
Rampaging through the heritage of the first plowsmen
The poet writes about the crisis that took Cote d'Ivoire by storm. He bemoans the destruction of a heritage after the country's long-serving president Houphouet Boigny passed. But the question one can ask is, did he - Houphouet Boigny - lord over a peaceful country, or did he forcefully suppress simmering tensions and dissenting views? Cote d'Ivoire's crisis, ending in Gbagbo's incarceration, is one of the strands of African crisis - when the colonialist seeks his will and wants to decide on who becomes president in a country he had colonised before.

Dreams has only one poem, if the poetic epigraphs that marks the beginning of every section is discounted. Note that these epitaphs, with the exception of one or two - which are quotations, are themselves poetic. They could be considered as prose poetry. Taboo King, the only poem in the segment, is the story of Obama and his rise from obscurity into prominence, as the United States' Forty-Fourth President. 

In Statu(t)es of Liberty the poet spoke not only about the physical freedom of movement but also the freedom of the mind - emancipation of the mind from mental slavery. This is captured even in the title: The Statue of Liberty has become the physical representation of freedom across the world. It is that which gave America its power. It is that upon which several statues of liberty have been written. Ironically, in this segment, the poet shows that we are all slaves of the world for can we truly move, in the strictest sense of the world, to any place we want? This is different from all the other imprisonments in that it is 'God'-made whereas the others are 'man'-made. Christmas in Guantanamo, the first poem in the section, clearly brings out the ironies of man. When a country claims to be a beacon of freedom and in so doing calls itself the land of liberty and yet every action it takes is anti-liberty; when the mind is able to accept two contradictions within the same time and space and recongises not the dissonance, so that justice and injustice are not at the opposite ends of a continuum but overlap and interact with each other, then the true limits of man is shown. If true liberty existed it would have been seen. True liberty would not require a propagandist machinery to show itself. These breakdown in liberty is seen in the privatisation of the American prison complex and its requirement that the prison should be filled to a required percentage in order for its owners to break even. Thus, human (non)freedom has become a capitalist commodity upon which profits are made. Penitentiary is the other poem in this section.

Life is a cycle of birth, growth, death, and birth. And when one gets nearer death's door, memories of life come rushing. One relishes the things he had done as a young man but cannot in his adulthood and rues what he should have done and did not. Memories is the poet's recollection of times past in a way that also marks his growth into adulthood. He even wonders about his birth: why me? he might have asked in Beyond the Birth-Cord
A contest of survival - and renewal
One headstrong spermatozoon
like the proverbial camel
passes through the eye of the needle
leaving millions to die in seminal battle fields
And even in remembrance, the poet cannot but show his belief in Life without end. Ironically, this biblical quote representing the continuation of the soul after death has been appropriated here to show the African's (and possibly the poet's) belief in life after death, reincarnation. It also could possibly refer not entirely or directly to reincarnation but to the perpetual domination and existence of man on earth. In this way man is a single organism, in ways discussed under Nature's Fury.

Desert Blues contains poems about the poet's journeys in Arabian countries. Yet they are not just mere litanies about his travels. Weaved into them are issues of life. For instance, footprints in the desert, in the poem Footprints, also represent the footprints in life; how lasting will they be? How positive? How influential? Mawuli's biblical metaphors are interesting and sharp. Canaan which retells of the Israelites also tells of how most African countries descended into destruction after the struggle for independence by discarding homegrown ideas and clamouring for foreign things and embracing the very things we have fought against. Greed - for wealth and for power - stole the hearts of the early leaders.
Blindfolded we discarded Tigare and Hebieso
for new chaperoned deities
who have so far held back the miracles
The poems in this section also offer hope. They show that there is beauty in waste, hope in desolation and that not all is lost. Termitarium, my favourite in the anthology, shows the occupation of a land and the dispossession of a people. But even there, the poet's words portend hope.
By this red anthill shall I stand
This lonesome altar
Or shall I lean on faith
Faith, not empirical evidence
That the sun shall rise again
From the splash of gold and vermillion
Bloody as this red anthill
However, same cannot be said for the poems captured under Rumours of War, which address notable world events such as the Cold War, the Holocaust, the fall of the Berlin Wall, apartheid, and others. Current events - the Ukraine-Russia-European Union-America crisis - has reawakened memories of the Cold War exposing the cyclical nature of historical events. Just when you begin to think that friendship among nations, among people, have reached an apogee, that is when the floor gives way to old beginnings. Funny enough, when a Russian meets an American in a pub, the two would hardly think of themselves as enemies. Yet, when apart and when speaking about their countries they would do so. The question that begs to be answered is where therefore does this enmity come from? Is it a clear and palpable presence? Or it is true that wars are the physical manifestations of avaricious octogenarians in their fight for ego and wealth.

In a collection spanning three decades, it is inevitable that some of the poems would have been written within a given space for particular purposes. There are bound to be nostalgic poems. Lands of Angels... contain poems written when the author was sojourning in England, perhaps in academic exile. Titles here include Empire which is not a conquest praise poem for the empire. Rather, the poet is lamenting of the destruction by one who came and presented himself as the umpire but transmogrified into a vampire and sucked the blood from the land, massacred our gods, implanted theirs, and whisked the people of the land away to their empires. The arrangement of the poem contributes to its meaning, especially the arrangement of the second line in semblance of a sword. The nostalgic poems include Stairs to the Stars which somewhat romanticises home, and understandably so. The poet is in a faraway land where none knows him and none he knows. He is therefore lonely and culture-shocked. The irony is in living among multitudes in humongous buildings and still feeling ensconced in loneliness.

Meditations shows the author introspectively examining the lives of his people and of himself. It is here that he defines his identity in Mirror Image and Blackness of Black. Abstract and social issues are all given breath of life. In Choices the question of choice and whether there is such a thing at all is posed. Is choice an illusion?
Perhaps, perhaps
There's too much--
But nothing--
To choose from
Agbogbloshie, sometimes referred to by its sobriquet Sodom and Gomorrah, has become the symbol and face of streetism (homelessness) and urban poverty in Ghana. Overtime it has become a large slum with slum-characteristics - crime, scavengers, heaps of rubbish, desolation, and others. In fact recently, the area has become the second largest e-waste dump-site in West Africa. In an eponymous poem the poet pulls away the veil to expose the rot and the indifference shown to these stragglers. Using filth and water as metaphors, the poet paints an attention-arrest image of this slum.
The korle flows under uncertain feet
With rottenness of the land
And the city averts its eyes
Turns its back on Sodom and Gomorrah
Lest it infect the national aesthetic
The poet is not all about scatology, geo-politics, or even abstract representations. Mawuli also has a humour, and though traces of this could be seen in all his poems, in nowhere do they come to life than in the poem Dressed to Kill. The poet meditated - yes, it is found in this segment of the anthology - on that thing, the G-thing, that miniscule flag that could be seen and unseen in one sweeping glance. Again, his biblical metaphors lend a hand here and it is fascinating how they - the biblical metaphors - could sometimes find themselves in strange spaces.
The G-thing - miniscule flag
That thin line - faint curtain
Between the raw hide
And the city of Jerusalem -
Flaunts its presence in absence
Incontrovertible evidence
Of virgin on fire
Taunting the bedazzled counterpart
To a fertility contest
This humour could also be found in Catwalk, depending on who is reading. Here the poet bemoans how models are made to suit certain perceived taste preferences. The poem portrays the sham hidden behind those plastic smiles as they strut on the walkway.
Snow-white teeth first clenched in grimace
then loosened in plastic smile -
and the fanatic cult of patrons smile too
Femininity on parade -
waspish frames starved to the marrow
shoulder blades carved into sickles
legs chiseled taut in envy of the giraffe and the gazelle
The last two segments in the anthology are aptly titled, Matters of the Heart and Eternity. The poems under the latter are poems about death and losing a loved one. They show Death as the impartial collector of human souls but more importantly they signify the cyclical nature of life, Life without end.

Mawuli's use of words is intriguing. He makes the words do the painting. They somersault, split, and realign themselves in fascinating ways. Sounds and rhymes play a major role in Adzei's poems; but the role they play are subtle. They are no obvious rush to rhyme but one could feel on one's tongue many fascinating internal rhymes, alliterations, assonance, and in one's mind, double entendres. There is music and deeper meaning in his works. His surgical placement and alignment of words strengthen their meaning. In Catwalk one reads Clinical Klein Versatile Versace; Empire begins with Empire Umpire Vampire and yet each word pads on further meaning. In Rites of Passage under the Land of our Birth (which furls the political history about Ghana) we read
In those days, gunpowder played among us
And we swallowed BOMBastic tales
About e-VOLUTIONS, re-VOLUTIONS and con-VOLUTIONS 
Mawuli also uses his diction as a way of colonising the English language and domesticating the poem. He might not have the usual pot-hut-calabash metaphors. But his Ghanaianness and Eweness shine through. They come up in unlikely places creating a sort of dissonance to the reader - initially, so that we meet Sasabonsam paragliding/ over the Kwahu scarp/ and gadflies dancing adowa/ against the lampost and wonder if they are helicopters in gymnastics (in Hallucinations). Similarly, we see the dinosaurs of African politics girding up their sagging dzakotos/ For a final blitz of panegyric styles/ Ready - as ever - to captivate and mesmerise (in Dance of the Dinosaurs); even Osama had his name parodied into saman (the ghost in Akan): No one catches a ghost in a deathtrap/ No one binds a mysterious Aziza with a rope (in Osama; Aziza is dwarf in Ewe).

Structurally, the setting of each poem on paper is deliberately done to add further meaning and in some way imitate the poem's message. In Catwalk the words were actually doing the catwalk, in Drifting the words were drifting, in Empire, the words were the sword standing perpendicularly for all to see its blood-soaked edges; in Stab in the Heart every other line stabs; in Freefall the number of lines per stanza declined until the last line (and stanza); in Eclipse over Abidjan, both ivory coast and gold coast are spelt in small letters signifying how the mighty have fallen. Besides, there are no excessive words; every word performs a function in the overall movement and musicality of the poem. Yet, none of his poems - to my amateur ears - is metrically structured.
zigzag crab-gait
step sway spin
slide glide like a gadfly
quickstep goosestep foxtrot
Flaunt the peacock plumage, tail-up
moonwalk earthwalk
left-right right-left
forward
forward still
counterpoint carousel
catwalk in reverse gear
backward
backward still
zigzag crab-gait
Now, dance to fade
Ovation!!!
(from Catwalk)

Mawuli Adzei has shown that he is equally at home with poetry as he is with novels. His novel Taboo is one excellent story that captures the different facets of Ghanaian life. This collection spanning three decades is a must read for all. Its non location-specific metaphors do not require special knowledge to understand and the poet has been too grateful to define and explain some of the local words he used, something I am personally against. Whether one loves poems or not, one will find something to like in this collection. It is highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Explaining My Silence and Reviewing the Month of May

There comes a time when even a hobby suffers from a person's silences and inactivity. Sometimes it becomes pronounced that going back to what we love becomes a tortuous task in itself. I have suffered this, though not to the tortuous end.

This year has been like no other year. It has taken me to the extremes of events. I have lost a job and found one. I have known fear and I have been rescued. It is in my moments of desperation that I realise I could not muster the necessary energy to read as many books as I used to read. I discovered that I am not one of those who could lose themselves and seek solace in books when faced with obstacles. In such situations, my mind takes control over me and does its own thinking, unaided, uncontrolled. It is for this reason that my reading in April was highly affected with only two books. I just could not bring myself to read. It is like a writer suffering from a writer's block.

May in Review
This block entered May. I thought that my acquisition of new books will spark my reading. It did. Briefly. I quickly devoured My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, and I thought things were going to move on in the right direction, especially after reading Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. But then the interest went downhill. I could not finish Atwood's The Blind Assassin, which I had been reading since April (and still reading). I was also not able to completely reread Golding's Lord of the Flies, which was the Writers Project of Ghana's book of the month.

Consequently, out of the target of 60 books in this calendar year, I have - as of today - read 18 books (adding Golding's), instead of the 25 books I should have read. In order not to put undue pressure on myself and to give me room to prepare for my new job, I have reset my target to 50 books.

Projections
I do not know what June holds for me. I have started reading again, albeit not at the same intensity and rate. But the act of reading daily is enough. I know the spark will come by itself and that I will rediscover this waning passion as events are set right. I am reading Atwood's The Blind Assassin and hope to complete it within a few days. I will also be reading Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, WPG's book for the month of June. From there, I hope things will take off in a very beautiful direction.

Reviews
Not only has my reading suffered. My book reviews too have. In fact, the number of books I need to review has been increasing slowly. It is my hope that I will be able to clear this backlog and move into normal gear. I love what I do and hope things get better.
_______________
*updated to include Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
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