Monday, May 28, 2018

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist

Twenty-four outstanding stories have been selected by an international judging panel from 5182 entries from 48 Commonwealth countries. The writers come from 14 countries including, for the first time, Samoa and Ghana.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction in English from the Commonwealth. As well as being open to entries translated into English from any language, it is the only literary prize in the world where entries can be submitted in Bengali, Chinese, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, and Tamil. Again, in 2018, we’re delighted that a translated story has reached the shortlist. The inclusion of other languages in the Prize speaks to Commonwealth Writers’ recognition of the need for linguistic diversity to promote the richness of varied literary traditions and lesser-heard narratives.

The 24 entries have earned their place on the shortlist - a rich collection of stori es showcasing the skill and talent of the writers and capturing the attention of the judges. Chair of the judges, award-winning novelist and short story writer Sarah Hall, said of this year’s shortlist:

The versatility and power of the short story is abundantly clear in this shortlist. With such a range of subject, style, language and imagination, it is clear what a culturally important and relevant form it is, facilitating many different creative approaches, many voices and versions of life. 

With a panel of judges also spanning the globe there was a sense of depth and breadth to the selection process, and each commonwealth region showcases the very best of its traditions, adaptations, and contemporary approaches. 

This is such a great, unique prize, one that seeks to uphold both literary community and particularity, crossing borders with the ambition of collating our common and unique stories. It is an enormous pleasure, and illuminating, to have been part of the reading process. 

The Prize is judged by an international panel of writers, representing each of the five regions of the Commonwealth. The 2018 judges are Damon Galgut (Africa), Sunila Galappatti (Asia), Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (Canada and Europe) Mark McWatt(Caribbean) and Paula Morris (Pacific).

The 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist in full:
  • ‘Dancing with Ma’, Harriet Anena (Uganda)
  • ‘Matalasi’, Jenny Bennett-Tuionetoa (Samoa)
  • ‘An Elephant in Kingston’, Marcus Bird (Jamaica)
  • ‘Tahiti’, Brendan Bowles (Canada)
  • ‘Ghillie’s Mum’, Lynda Clark (United Kingdom)
  • ‘Goat’, Sally Craythorne (United Kingdom)
  • ‘The Divine Pregnancy in a Twelve-Year-Old Woman’, Sagnik Datta (India)
  • ‘Soundtracker’, Christopher Evans (Canada)
  • ‘Passage’, Kevin Hosein (Trinidad and Tobago)
  • ‘Jyamitik Zadukor’ (The Geometric Wizard) by Imran Khan (Bangladesh) translated by Arunava Sinha
  • ‘Talk of The Town’, Fred Khumalo (South Africa)
  • ‘Night Fishing’, Karen Kwek (Singapore)
  • ‘Nobody’s Wife’, Chris Mansell (Australia)
  • ‘The Boss’, Breanne Mc Ivor (Trinidad and Tobago)
  • ‘Holding On, Letting Go’, Sandra Norsen (Australia)
  • ‘Empathy,’ Cheryl Ntumy (Ghana)
  • ‘A Girl Called Wednesday’, Kritika Pandey (India)
  • ‘Chicken Boy’, Lynne Robertson (New Zealand)
  • ‘Hitler Hates You’, Michelle Sacks (South Africa)
  • ‘After the Fall’, James Smart (United Kingdom)
  • ‘Son Son’s Birthday’, Sharma Taylor (Jamaica)
  • ‘Berlin Lends a Hand’, Jonathan Tel (United Kingdom)
  • ‘True Happiness’, Efua Traoré (Nigeria)
  • ‘Juju’, Obi Umeozor (Nigeria)

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Smiles from 35,000 ft

The lines blurred over teary eyes
As yesterday's sentences crawled through the crenels of a hypnic-jerk mind

Afraid to think of things the world taboos
Yet bold to defend it resolutely in conversation with itself

As I looked down from the roof of the earth
I recreated your little cheeks swelling with laughter... the twilight twinkles in those tiny eyes...

We may have endlessly, hopelessly fallen into this thing which has for years written itself into society's hypocritical epithet
And we may have to ball it up and dump it in their dump-truck...
Or timidly follow their path and forever hide this primal base from their accusatory eyes, away from:

Them who hide their dangling scrotums in hideous togases to deceive naive maidens
Them who walk the shore to rebuke the footprints of yesterday's memories
Them who cast stones from behind books and creeds...

But tell me, how does one bury a sailing cork?
Why should one pluck a smile from 35,000ft and smash it aground?
Is it love if it must be expressed within the dark crevices of the moon?

December 10, 2017
On Air Côte d'Ivoire en route to Dakar, Sénégal.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

304. Afriku - Haiku & Senryu from Ghana by Adjei Agyei-Baah

Art is dynamic. Art is adaptive. And regardless of where it originates, and with what rules, it is bound to transform and adapt to different cultures. The debate has always been to stick within the rules, be novel with the rules, or to break the rules entirely. But it is these debates, and how they are treated by active-passive artists and the critics alike, that makes art simply ART. It is what has kept it valuable and relevant in an age where the computer is determined to take over our lives and transform everything into a virtual non-reality.

Haiku is just one poetry form. It is perhaps the shortest poetry form, albeit with the longest set of rules. One Haijin (a Haiku poet), Jane Reichhold wrote in her book that one must learn all the rules, practice them, and break them. This is such a difficult thing to do, breaking them. Nevertheless, it is what one must do to remain relevant or to adapt the art form to a given culture. And Haiku is one poetry form that requires a lot of adaptation. 

And this is exactly what Adjei Agyei-Baah did in his book Afriku - Haiku & Senryu from Ghana (2016). As its name suggests, it is a collection of haiku and senryu poems, but with a 'difference'. Adjei has translated each poem into his native Twi language. The Twi language has short syllables and so these translations did not take much away from the original. The question here is: Are the Twi versions the originals or the translations? This is a question Adjei will answer some day.

The collection opens with an adaptation of one of the most popular Haikus of all time, Basho's Frog by Matsuo Basho. There has been numerous adaptations of this Haiku, yet Adjei found a way to bring it home. He writes

old pond - 
the living splash
of Basho's frog

And even for this, he managed to write a Twi version. At this stage, I am assuming the Twi versions to be translations.

sutae dadaa - 
nkaedum a Basho
apotrɔ gyaeε

However, the importance of the collection does not lie in just one simple adaptation of a great work. There are several others that do exactly what Haiku should do: to live someone's captured moment. For instance who does not feel the hot breath, the tiredness, the sweat droplets, and the pain of this farmer?

drought - 
the farmer digs
into his breath

Or the sole egret playing catch-up with the swarm in

season of migration
the lightning dash
of a late egret

Haikus are meant to show and not tell. They are like art pieces. The reader-viewer must make his own explanations, must live the artist's moment in his own personal way, must bring to the art his own interpretation. However, Haiku - the classical Haiku  - do more. For instance, they must indicate the date or period within which the event occurred using seasonal markers (Kigo). In the 'drought' piece above, one can easily feel the harmattan and can geopin it to the northern part of Ghana where the harmattan is severe and the drudgery of farmers become palpable in their breaths. In fact, if one has a broader and deeper knowledge of the landscape of the country, one can easily say that this farmer is in the Bongo District of the Upper East where the land is rocky and the soil is laterite and extremely difficult to cultivate. 

However, for Haiku writers in the tropics, the use of kigo has become the dry season of our arts. It makes writing difficult since the changes in the season is not dramatic. Adjei faced some of these problems and manoeuvered around it. For instance, 

gust of wind...
the crow takes off
in a zigzag line

shows that we are in the rainy season but not in July, when it only drizzles. This could be the period just after the dry season, early March to April, where the rainfall is preceded by heavy winds and squalls. 

But Adjei did not tie himself with the entire range of Haiku rules. There are times that he preferred the moment to the classic rules.

traffic holdup
the absurdity of politics
served fresh on the airwaves

or this

school memories - 
all the farts concealed
by shifting chairs

could be argued to be non-Haiku. In fact, I am tempted to believe that these ones are the Senryu the title is referencing. But can one not relate to the issue in the piece? Adjei attempted to make his Haiku tell a story, the story of Africa. He managed to introduce old narratives into new formats. Take this piece

stone meal...
mother fakes supper
to put the kids to sleep

Anyone who knows the story told behind this will easily relate to this piece. Recently, I was explaining how we used to light up cooking fire to a late nineties colleague and it was as if I was an ancient being, but Adjei captures and packages it in a way that makes my story verbose

childhood memories
the wood shavings that light up
mother's charcoal

There are some really beautiful gems in this collection including the one-liner 

a dragonfly pausing the wind


smiling pond...
a dragonfly dips
its tail

I like the fact that Adjei broke the rules, sometimes. There are many who consider Haiku to be just 5-7-5 syllable poem or Short-Long-Short. If Haiku were just these then it is not an art form. It is this and more. Just as you cannot write a 15-line poem and call it a sonnet but can write a sonnet of straight 14 lines or of a sestet and octet, so too can you play within the rules, break them entirely, and still keep the Haiku identity. In several of the pieces, Adjei did this. In the ones he did not, where he sought to carry a story through, or lighten up things, the Senryu in the title is there for cover.

Adjei's collection is important for several reasons. One, it brings home an art form that is very difficult to tame. It encourages several individuals to consider alternative forms of poetry. The bold attempt at translating into Twi is important for reasons beyond just Haiku. Like many other things, the African is comfortable writing in English or French than his native language. Yet, he thinks first in his native language even when speaking these languages. Writing in the native language then has the capability to free the writer. And the more writers we have doing this, the better it will be for our writing.

For those interested in writing and reading Haiku, please do include this in your material.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Paul Beatty Wins the 2016 Man Booker Prize

Paul Beatty's The Sellout have been announced as the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize. This makes Paul the first American to have won the prize since the change in rules in 2015, allowing any book published in English in the UK eligible.

According to the Man Booker Prize "The Sellout is a searing satire on race relations in contemporary America", which was "described by The New York Times as a ‘metaphorical multicultural pot almost too hot to touch’, whilst the Wall Street Journal called it a ‘Swiftian satire of the highest order. Like someone shouting fire in a crowded theatre, Mr. Beatty has whispered “Racism” in a postracial world.’"

Though the prize has over the years been bogged with controversy - readers keening about its dumbing down (sacrificing literary merit on the altar of readability) and the bolder ones threatening to form another prize, The Man Booker Prize is still an authoritative source for good books, new novelists, and bold narratives (from small publishers) that do not pander to the whims of the pretentious masses whose purchase of books is either for decorative purposes or for the conferment of an elite status, mostly. 

Together with the Man Booker International Prize, which has also seen an intelligent transformation from being an award to a writer every second year for his or her oeuvre (though this was a good challenge to the comatose, the viciously political, and that misnomer, the Nobel Prize in Literature) to an annual award for best novel in translation, the Man Booker has become the ultimate writers' award. And this is because of the judges the prize draws upon every year - though this has also been its source of controversies; yet, it is far different from and better than those which employ hibernating septuagenarians, who in conclave in a catacomb, select an individual they have mostly not read with a citation that is vague, at best, and mostly meaningless - a sentence to be turned into curlicues on wall plaques.

Whilst the Nobel (in literature) has ceased to promote literature, just as its cousin ceased to promote peace, the Booker is transforming and learning and becoming more relevant.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

303. Black Ass by A. Igoni Barrett

"Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep." With this foreboding line Igoni Barrett ushers the reader into the complex and funny world of Furo Wariboko who woke up one morning to find himself transformed into a Caucasian with a black-patched bottom, green eyes and red hair. However, this furious instantaneous genetic mutation did not affect his speech and so Furo looks like a foreigner but speaks like a Nigerian. How will Furo, a young graduate born and bred in a low-income suburb of Lagos and attending his first interview on the first day of this startling transmogrification, navigate the dangerous curves and turns of this identity quagmire? How will he convince people of his Nigerian identiy, when his looks rejects his name and his documents reject his looks? How will he face his family and tell them that he is the Furo they knew the night before? How will they reconcile the two Furos into his new physiologically transmogrified body?

Black Ass (2015) is a social experiment in identity, specifically what defines identity. It examines such factors as the role of skin complexion and language in establishing or conferring and confirming identity. Assesses whether identity is conferred and confirmed by public documents or by the agreement of the majority. It also examines the classical relationships between Africans and Caucasians. Finally, through an eponymous character, Black Ass scratches the surface of gender identity.

Igoni Barrett in this novel shows that one can live within two identities - one that his features confirm and the other conferred by official documents. This is different from dual citizenship where there are documents to confer both and, in some cases, physical features to confirm both. No one who saw Furo Wariboko, after his change, agreed that he was a Nigerian. Even when they heard him speak like a Nigerian, they were ready to agree that he had done well to learn the language and, perhaps, had lived among them for a long time. Thus, in the identity-confirmation tug-of-war  genetic characteristics outweigh acquired characteristics. However, for those willing to work with him and suspend the belief that Wariboko is European at least as long as this suspension of the visual confirmation of identity works to their benefit, for such individuals as Arinze, proof of identity by official documents was enough. Consequently, the majority may disagree with one's identity but the mere possession of an official document is enough to confer a new identity and override the genetic confirmation. Hence by obtaining a Nigerian passport, Furo Wariboko became Nigerian, at least to the people who matter. Though this was not to destroy, in any way, the manner in which the majority of the people related to him.

In discussing the relationship between blacks and whites, or of how Africans relate to Whites on the former's land, Igoni Barrett shows that such a relationship has many faces. One aspect of this relationship, which is sometimes the predominant one and usually shown by the middle class, is when the African is quick to offer help or favour to a Caucasian with no ulterior motive. In this kind of relationship, the African sees the Caucasian as a weakling who has not the capacity to survive in Africa's tedious, hectic, and multifariously demanding conditions. In fact, the African is quick to sympathise with the Caucasian when he sees him struggling underneath the unforgiving African Sun. It is this kind of relationship that got Furo, who after sneaking away from home in his new skin, more favours than he would have otherwise received had he been in his old black skin. For instance, on his way to the interview when he realised he was running late, he was able to rely on his street-smartness to get a lady to offer him money for transportation by lying about his broken down car. Ordinarily, this same tale would not have elicited any sympathy had he been black as the lady would have considered it a lie. She would chew on the 'car' bit for a long time not that she does not believe a Nigerian can own such a car, in fact she has seen a lot to know its possibility; however, she will not be able to see how this Nigerian will own a car and not have the means to seek help from friends and family when that car is broken down. This might be interpreted in many ways: Inferiority bestowed on the Nigerian; or even the illogical trust the African have for the Caucasian, but not for his fellow African. However, this could also mean the African trust the resourcefulness of the African to get out of predicaments without help; hence seeking help in such a low-difficulty level predicament, when all features point to a born and bred Nigerian, will be considered to be an anomaly that can only arouse suspicion.

Another example of this relationship was when Furo at the job interview, which was hardly an interview for him, was offered a position higher than what he had applied for when the owner realise how easy and beneficial it would be to capitalise on Furo's appearance and characteristics: a Whiteman with Nigerian attitude. Though this particular favour was not without a future reward, the offer itself would not have been provided had he not looked Caucasian. Another clearer example of this relationship was when Furo went to a buka to eat. The food seller had given her more food than he had purchased and later he had run away with the money. However, she was quick to forego this theft when Furo, inadvertently, visited her again. Yet this same food seller had fought her fellow Nigerian, the melee which created an avenue for Furo to escape with the money in the first place. Finally, Furo was to be rescued from the street by Syreeta who will willingly provide Furo with food, shelter and sex. Will Syreeta have offered these multiple benefits had Furo been in his black skin?

Another aspect of the relationship is when the help or favour is offered but with the intention of future or immediate gain. Here, the African offer his or her service with the intention of extracting some form of payment, usually not required, not direct, most often a surcharge. Furo encountered a lot of such instances as a Caucasian. For instance, even though Syreeta might have initially used Furo to get back at his Big Man, and Furo had also given her a limit on his stay at her residence, later we were to see what was in it for Syreeta. The more obvious examples were the service providers who cajole and wheedle and through perfected shenanigans extort money from their clients. An example is the taxi drivers whose fares for Caucasians, and foreigners in general, were about four times the normal charge; government officials who take advantage of their position to exact their pound of flesh from foreigners when they see them hovering indecisively on the borders of the law such as the LASTMA who accosted them for making the wrong turning; and those who will give appellations, will boot-lick, and will offer all obsequiousness necessary to extract a Naira from the pocket. Unfortunately, the latter (making a Naira from the next pocket) is not directed only at foreigners but is intensified towards them as they are seen to be very sympathetic and generous. Thus, people expected him to tip more and to complain less when been cheated.

As further proof for this kind of relationship towards Caucasians, whilst working for Arinze, Furo was to receive several offers from their clients who saw the unique advantage of having Furo work for them, again it was his European looks and Nigerian attitude these folks wanted. This sort of relationship was usually exhibited by the low-income and the upper middle income individuals who run their own businesses and are quick to spot an opportunity.

Sometimes the expression of these relationships are gendered. For instance, all of Syreeta's close friends were married to European immigrants and so she saw Furo as the best way of improving her social status since her economic status had already been taken care of by her Oga (Big Man). Later, it became somewhat clear that she had offered to help Furo, after Igoni had rejected to do so, because of her subtle need for mixed-race children, since such children are already guaranteed perks that would remain dreams for poor Black Nigerians. Or even perhaps she genuinely loved him and would have left her Oga, which was a possibility. However, most of the needs of his male beneficent-seekers were of ways to upgrade their economic status, like Victor Ikhide, a guy he met in the queue during the interview who wanted to befriend him so he can help him, if possible, visit his brother abroad. This latter behaviour by most Africans who, subliminally, confer superior status to Caucasians and inferior status to Africans, was all too common in the novel. For example when together with his boss they went to meet a client, Furo was perceived to be the boss, for the daughter of the client could not envision an African employing an European. After all have they not been saving us ever since they discovered us?

An extension of this superiority-inferiority dichotomy was expressed in the way people stared at Furo especially when they found him in places economically designated for locals. The people struggled to comprehend how a member of the 'makers of civilisation' tribe, the people who make and own Things could walk and live among the poor, talk like them, and himself suffer like those for whom poverty seemed to be a bona fide property. Sometimes in an attempt to feign disinterest, they pretend they have not seen him at all. And when they probe and find out that beneath the white skin and beyond the green eyes lies a man who was completely Nigerian, they buckle.

Though this is the first African novel I have read that touches on the aspect of gender identity dealing with transsexualism, it did not go far for me. First we meet Igoni as a man when Furo sought help from him, then as a woman. Later we are to learn that he is undergoing a transformation and that that transformation might have stalled
It is easier to be than to become. [301]
For though Igoni had developed breasts, her other male features still exists. Barrett only scratched the surface of Igoni's story. Perhaps the results of using the first-person narrative style when he talked about Igoni, so that she/he revealed what she/he wants to share. It was not clear how his/her family accepted the transformation; how he/she worked around the issue in his/her work among others. Igoni Barrett threw away the chance to set tongues wagging and minds thinking. Yet, it is entirely possible that this was not Barrett's intention. He just wanted to write a story and it happened that one of the characters was a transsexual just as Furo was straight. Sometimes readers expect too much - a writer must just write and be his own voice and not the voice of any group or ideology.

Besides this, there are two other issues that got me scratching my head. Furo's behaviour to his colleagues (especially Tosin, to whom he was warming) when he was ready to move on to a more lucrative job was incomprehensible and difficult to reconcile with his previous actions. Yes, he took advantage of people, but his condition called for desperate survival measures and there was no overt indication from his past to suggest that he can act in such manner. In addition, his relationship with Igoni was sudden. There was almost no preceding events (apart from the two introductory occasions they met). How this developed was not clear. It was as if the author just wanted the two to meet for something to occur to resolve the plot. The meeting could have been prevented though in the end one will understand why Barrett wanted it to happen; even then it could have been non-sexual, but does it matter? This created a feeling of a rush towards the end.

The second issue is that one kept expecting something momentous from Furo's mysterious sister. She was described as an intelligent but self-serving and intriguing young girl. Set-up like this, the reader's expectations were raised: would she wreak the final ruin on the Wariboko family? The reader is given a snippet into this mystery, which reflected the craze for internet attention among today's young people (the millennials), when she used the search for her brother to attain Twitter celebrity status, gaining followers here and there. But then again, one expected more, especially when she was bubbly and careless with risks.

Reading Black Ass as a metaphor, Furo could be taken for the white man who descended onto the continent, took advantage of its resources - natural and human - it provided, used them mercilessly and discarded them.

However, I enjoyed the ending. Barrett leaves the reader thinking and reconstructing his own ending. It is always interesting when the author include the reader in the story. This is a funny and complex book that will get the reading community talking. This is the kind of books we should be writing and reading. They are bold, they attempt to do what is not common. They are not just narrating a reality, they create realities and, take it or leave it, they don't care about your capacity to accept it or not. This is worth the read.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2017 Now Open for Entries

One of the flagship projects of Commonwealth Writers, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is now open for entries, with an international judging panel comprising judges from each of the five Commonwealth regions: Zukiswa Wanner (Africa); Mahesh Rao (Asia); Jacqueline Baker (Canada and Europe), Jacob Ross (Caribbean) and Vilsoni Hereniko (Pacific).

The chair of this year’s panel is the novelist Kamila Shamsie, who is the author of six novels, including Burnt Shadows, which has been translated into more than 20 languages and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and A God in Every Stone which was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
“One of the pleasures of short stories is the potential for encountering both breadth and concentrated depth of writing over the space of just a few stories. In the case of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the geographic range of the entrants, as well as the prize's track record of attracting extraordinary writing, turns that potential into near-certainty.” Kamila Shamsie, Chair, 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize
The prize is for the best piece of unpublished short fiction. Entries translated into English from other languages are also eligible. Writers from across the Commonwealth can enter their stories online at here.
“As well as the scope of the Prize to unearth truly ‘less heard’ voices, it’s also one of only a handful of international prizes open to unpublished writers, as well as published writers, with £15,000 in prize money. And we believe that it’s the only major international prize which invites writers to enter in languages other than English – Bengali, Portuguese, Samoan and Swahili this year.” Lucy Hannah, Programme Manager, Commonwealth Writers
Commonwealth Writers is delighted to continue its partnership with Granta Magazine to give the overall and regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize the opportunity to have their story edited and published by Granta online.
Notes to Editors
  1. The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is part of Commonwealth Writers, the cultural programme of the Commonwealth Foundation. It is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction (2000-5000 words). Regional winners receive £2,500 and the Overall Winner receives £5,000. Short stories translated into English from other languages are also eligible. Translators receive additional prize money. 
  2. Commonwealth Writers develops and connects writers across the world. It believes that well-told stories can help people make sense of events, engage with others, and take action to bring about change. Responsive and proactive, it is committed to tackling the challenges faced by writers in different regions and working with local and international partners to identify and deliver projects. Its activities take place in Commonwealth countries, but its community is
  3. Commonwealth Foundation is a development organisation with an international remit and reach, uniquely situated at the interface between government and civil society. It develops the capacity of civil society to act together and learn from each other to engage with the institutions that shape people’s lives. It strives for more effective, responsive and accountable governance with civil society participation, which contributes to improved development
  4. Granta is a quarterly literary magazine of new writing. Published in book format, each issue includes stories, essays, memoir, poetry and art centred around a theme. Throughout its long history, Granta has published the most significant writers of our time featuring work by writers including Julian Barnes, Edwidge Danticat, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Santiago Roncagliolo, David Mitchell, Lorrie Moore, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson and more. In recent years, the magazine has expanded to include foreign editions – in Spain, Italy, Brazil, Norway, China, Finland, Sweden, Portugal and Bulgaria.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Interview with Tendai Huchu, Author of The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician

Tendai Huchu (Source)
Today, I bring you an interview (a discussion) with Tendai Huchu. I interviewed him when his first book The Hairdresser of Harare came out. He has published his second book: The Maestro, The Magistrate, and The Mathematician. I caught up with him via Facebook and this is what ensued.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: So how did The Hairdresser of Harare do? And how was it accepted in Zimbabwe noting the subject matter?

Tendai Huchu: The Hairdresser isn't a book I think much about now. I have moved on as an artist. It was well received in Zim. First print run sold out. Good reviews. It was a popular read.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: OK. Great. I'm surprised you say you think not much about it. Is it that you are more concerned with your new work?

Tendai Huchu: Yeah, I am doing newer and, hopefully, more interesting stuff. I have/am evolving. For me, the next project is always more exciting than the last. I imagine it is the same for all writers.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: Yes. You always have to focus on your current project and allow the last one to live its own life. Your second book fascinates me. I was wondering what will be contained in its pages. What's this book about?

Tendai Huchu: It is hard for me to distill a 90,000 word text into a soundbite, particularly when it has no real central theme. But the stuff that interested me most in making the text was the formal stuff, mechanical things to do with structure, and, of course, playing with genre and also trying to create a work that was ambiguous and contradictory. This makes little sense if you have not yet read the book, but I hope you will one day.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: This sounds appetising. I'm no stranger to stranger literature. In fact experimental literature is itself novel. So will you consider your text experimental?

Tendai Huchu: I wouldn't necessarily consider myself an experimental novelist. I don't think I wield the necessary pyrotechnics to assume such a designation, rather the form the text was created try to buttress the ideas in the story I was putting forward. For example, the text contains 3 novellas, and this was only because my initial attempts at creating a unified, conventional novel failed, and the only way I could get the three characters to work was by highlighting their differences. It was a process of simplification, but that comes with its own complications, the language and style of the separate stories then had to be altered radically, the visual presentation of the text on the page itself had to be looked into. If there is any innovation in the text, it is merely a response to difficulties I encountered in writing the damned thing.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: Your response piques my interest. After all, it is in adversity that we innovate. Your response reminds me of Doreen Baingana's linked stories Tropical Fish. You said earlier that the story (like Murakami's novel Kafka on the Shore) has no central theme how then were you able to sustain the writing to reach a meaningful conclusion?

Tendai Huchu: The conclusion is part of the play with ambiguity that I had going on. So for long stretches of the novel you have these disparate elements in play, but then at the denouement the camera zooms out and you see how these events come together and have been orchestrated, but only once you step out of the limited, chaotic experience of the individual characters. You also come to realise that the real hero of the story is someone else. I am talking round the book here because I am avoiding spoilers, but the idea is that whatever position the text takes must be undermined by an equal and opposite truth. Thus, I now do a U-turn and advance the argument that the book actually has a theme and is tightly plotted. It is not a literary novel but a genre novel of a very specific kind.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: This sounds interesting and I look forward to reading it one day. However, how's distribution of your books like? Getting books distributed in Africa is difficult*.

Tendai Huchu: It is published in Zimbabwe by amaBooks and in Nigeria by Farafina. The problems of book distribution in Africa are well documented, but we are really talking simple market forces here, nothing more. It's not as though there are hordes of readers demanding my work across the continent. My publishers will be lucky if they so much as break even with this book. That's the harsh reality. Why would a publisher anywhere else in Africa try to sell my book when they already have a hard time selling works by their own local authors? I sound pessimistic and for this I apologise but the future of the book industry is intimately linked to the future of the general economy. You put more money in people's pockets and they have more leisure time, they might indulge and engage with this art form. The state has the resources to build libraries and stock them, there is another market for publishers. Combine this with mass literacy and the industry has a shot. We have to be realistic and tie the future of this art form to inescapable power of capitalism. Books are just another product of that system. Nothing more, nothing less.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: Thanks Tendai for this discussion.
*Conducted this interview before I got a copy of this book. My copy is published by Farafina and the Writers Project of Ghana has copies for sale.

Friday, September 02, 2016

302. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, written over a twelve-year period (1928-1940) and published posthumously (1967), is a fantastic representation of phantasmagorical events that began with the portentous prediction whose realisation spelt doom for the entire inhabitants of Moscow, creating knots and entanglements that mere rationalisation was unable to coherently unwound or meaningfully disentangle. 

The Great Deceiver, who in this case appeared as a great Magician, entered Moscow and, chancing upon a meeting of two literary enthusiasts at Patriarch's Ponds discussing the unending debate of the presence or otherwise of God, began a performance. The two self-professed atheists were strong in their conviction of a non-existent God and proffered argument after argument and hypothesis after hypothesis to support their thesis, until the arrival of Prof. Woland (the devil) and his retinue (Azazello, Behemoth the manlike-cat, Koroviev, Abadonna, and Hella, who were slowly unveiled and unleashed onto Moscow). Upon hearing Berlioz and Bezdomny's discussion, Prof Woland, like Descartes (in his ontological argument for the existence of God), countered the arguments of a non-existent God, citing the story of Pontius Pilate and his encounter with Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus Christ). The two literary enthusiasts were baffled when, in narrating this story, Prof Woland insisted that he was present when Yeshua Ha-Notsri was brought to Pontius Pilate. However, since a logician's mind cannot accept that a man can live to a thousand years, they became furious and openly doubted him. They became even more flabbergasted when he later added that he had even met Kant and here they, with the backing of their knowledge, challenged him.

Worried, and in need of a performance to support his claim, Woland prophesied Berlioz's death and its cause - a cause so impossible that it was laughable and so intricate that it can only happen if the purveyor is its executor. And it was the realisation of this prophecy that will drive Bezdomny into a frenetic chase of Woland and his first two disciples (Azazello and Behemoth) throughout Moscow ending him as the asylum's first victim. 

Bulgakov might have written this as a stand against the elite who considered atheism as a mark of intellectual distinction and logic as the sole source of authority. And yet, the devil's argument for the existence of God was based on deduction, in that if God did not exist then definitely he, the devil, must not exist, for it is impossible for a thing to exist without its dipole and to admit that there is no God is implicitly an admittance of the non-existence of the devil. One cannot hold onto one and disregard the other. The push-pull yin-yang is required for balance. 

Another issue Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita exposes is the greed of the time. Through this mysticism imbued fantasy, where nothing is black and white, Bulgakov - through the actions of Woland and his retinue - exposed the festering greed of Muscovites at the time, which will later send scores into uncontrolled hysteria and psychosis. Woland and his team manged to unleash mass psychosis on the people, testing their power to rationalise beyond its elastic limit. For instance, for Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy - Chairman of the House Committee, it was his greed to make profit off the back of Woland that led him into trouble when he was turned in for having foreign currency in his possession. Stepan Bogdanovich Likhodeyev obtained a multi-bedroom apartment with Berlioz by denouncing others as spies and by that he found himself teleported into Yalta. The majority of Muscovites fell for the Woland's black magic, during his show at the Variety Theatre, out of greed. Willingly they changed their dresses for what they considered to be more sparkling and pretty; they scrambled for the ten rouble notes, which turned out to be product labels. And one, in a bout of epistemic arrogance, got his head pulled off and later refixed.

Bulgakov also perhaps sought to illustrate the nature of a controlled economy as observed in the criminality of speculating or dealing in foreign currencies and the high-demand and low-supply of accommodation, creating demi-gods.

Bulgakov's novel has no recognition of time dimensions. It fluidly merges them. Time today becomes time yesterday or time tomorrow and not even two thousand years can separate events. Events merge into each other as time merges and the worlds collide so that Matthew the Levite, a follower of Yeshua Ha-Notsri, reappears in Moscow with a Message from God to the devil concerning how he should treat the Master and her love, Margarita. Also, Satan's story of Pontius Pilate becomes the story the Master has been writing but which Moscow's literary elite, perhaps for its circumlocutory support for the existence of God, denounced in several articles - each more vitriolic than the previous - leading to his mental breakdown and his subsequent incarceration and the breakdown of his burgeoning relationship with the already-married Margarita. This saving grace of the Master and Margarita by the devil can be because of the Master's belief in the  existence of God, and by inference of the devil.

Our concept of good and evil and of the nature of the devil is somewhat challenged when God asked the devil to give peace to the Master and Margarita:
'He has read the master's writings,' said Matthew the Levite, 'and asks you take the master with you and reward him by granting him peace. Would that be hard for you to do, spirit of evil?'
'Nothing is hard for me to do,' replied Woland, 'as you well know.' He paused for a while and then added: 'Why don't you take him yourself, to the light?' [406]
This is a fantastic book, literally. Once in a while the narrator shows himself to the reader, which was not a bother since it was few and far between. Reading this in Russian would have been fun as most often the names of Russian characters seek to add a layer of meaning to the story. One bother, and this is with all Russian novels, is the names. The names are long and sometimes difficult to relate the long versions with the short versions making it difficult to keep the characters in mind.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

New Books Acquired

Books are life. Good books are heavenly. A stack of books? - indescribable. The following are the books I have purchased since I last talked about new books I have acquired:

  1. The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician by Tendai Huchu. I came to know Tendai when he published The Hairdresser of Harare. I interviewed him then. And I have an interview with him on this new book, which I am yet to post here. I was therefore surprised to find that the book organization, of which I am a member, Writers Project of Ghana, has copies of his book for sale, courtesy Farafina. The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician was published in 2015. My interest in reading Tendai's second book is to really understand the path his writing will take.
  2. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. John Banville describes the book as "unlike anything I have read in recent years, an extraordinary, breathtaking achievement." It has been considered as a great American novel. The great Harold Bloom described it as one of the best 20th Century American novel. That's enough for a purchase.
  3. The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. So there is no reason to buy this apart from the zeal to read more by this author later.
  4. The Struggle Continues by Kwame Nkrumah. Who would not want to read anything by Ghana's first president? He is one of the few presidents of his time who understood how the system worked. This was Osagyefo's last book and was published posthumously.
  5. Emigrant by G. A. Agambila. The author's reading of the book was funny. This is not a book I would have originally selected though I have read the author's other book Journey, which I did not particularly enjoy. However, I am giving this a gamble before I decide on the author completely.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

301. Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 08, 2016

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 29, 2016

The 2016 Man Booker Dozen - Should we Worry?

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

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

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

Thursday, July 28, 2016

New Books Acquired

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

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