Tuesday, January 31, 2012

132. As The Crow Flies by Veronique Tadjo

Title: As the Crow Flies
Author: Veronique Tadjo
Translator: Wangui wa Goro
Original Language: French
Publishers: Heinemann (AWS)
Pages: 104
Year of First Publication: 2001
Country: Cote d'Ivoire

Read for the African Reading Challenge

As the Crow Flies is a love story of some sorts. The story is a cascade of individual stories capable of standing on their own as shown by one thread which was published under the title Betrayal  in the Opening Spaces edited by Yvonne Vera.

The story opens with a woman whose husband also has a wife. Initially, she was happy; her heart was filled with joy. Then things began to change and she was not happy anymore. There was a detachment, somewhat. And she applied for a divorce. The coming of this woman, from abroad, to meet this man interspersed several sections of the story. Thus, as if the story is diverting from some course, which it always did, then suddenly the woman at an airport comes up. 

From this somewhat love story, Tadjo presented us with a commentary of happenings around the world,happenings as she reads from the newspapers. Through this she also presents the reader with some of the idiosyncrasies of Western life such as the fear of getting fat even when she was gobbling ice-creams. There are also several political critiques in this story. Tadjo provides a scathing analyses of our present life. She writes:
It is definitely a century that hands its head in shame. Our elders have been called impotent, and we are accused of being 'limp' ... Indeed, the town lost its scent a long time ago. We are all sick and tired of suffocation, of this monarch lording it over his people. Everybody can feel that this is a sterile century. Even love is finding it hard to thrive. 
Suddenly, there is a comparison of life in Africa and the US which morphed into a girl who is pregnant and in search of a place to abort the baby. Through similar picturesque descriptions Tadjo presented us with the rot in our society, the unlove, the non-love, the difficulties, the wickedness. All the stories had to do with love and its numerous manifestations or non-manifestations. There was an old beggar who killed a young boy for occupying his space and attracting his clients. Thus, in Tadjo's world or in the world she painted, love is not far from rot and the opposites live with each other. The rot manifests from the unlove we show and from the non-loved we have. And as the story switches from scene to scene, the narrative style also changes with it. There are places where it is the first person 'I'. At other places there is the second person and the omniscient narrator were also used and there are places where the narrator addresses the reader.

One thing that is clear is the poetic flow of the write. Reading this reminded me of Mia Couto, not his ultra-refined sentences with all its inversions, but his style of storytelling and his visions which breaks boundaries and the seeming magical nature of his characters for in Tadjo's world all these converge, with beauty. Tadjo knows her subject. Regarding the rot in society she writes:
I want to talk about the death of a pregnant woman in that suffocating part of the city. The architect had not been entirely honest and the contractor negligent.
This particular strand hammers on shoddy works - is it to get more profit? - and its ultimate end. This particular one caused explosion of the toilet pipes and death of people. This same story became a comment on rapid population growth and limited public amenities, as people packed themselves into a bus at bursting point, and again suddenly morphed into a subtle argument for abortion when:
Young girls, muttering inaudible words, contort their bodies on the hospital floor. One of them looks especially young. 
Then the love story comes in again. A man who has been betrayed decides to taken vengeance on all women.
Somewhere, a young man wallows in his suffering - his wound so deep he cannot draw a distinction between love and destruction. ... His pain is so great that he wants to punish all women, but I tell him, 'No, love is the colour of hope. Bitter today, sweet tomorrow. You should not throw away your wealth of tenderness and let the honey-filled caresses dry up. Do not be wicked just to prove who you are, just to expose your wounds to the skies.'
To show the other sides of love, the narrative leads us to a boy (or a man) who was visiting his mother after a long period of absence and estrangement. And this occurred when the woman was on his deathbed. The duality of Tadjo's world is negatively. So that even though 'the city dazzled with bright lights and shimmered with wonders ... one false move would lead to mud and filth'. Again, he showed the inner rot, the poverty that has been plastered with an ostentatious show of superficial wealth, wealth which run shallow. Consequently,
Although people wore gold, if you just turned your head you would see the poor in tatters and the street children. If you came off the brightly lit streets and ventured further out, you would find yourself choking on the dust of abandoned tracks. ... The worst part is it was that the inhabitants had lost hope.
This vision is found in all major cities, especially across the developing world where stupendous wealth exists side by side with abject poverty and a showy of mendicancy. It is visions like these that turn the narrator into a vaticinator prophesying the destruction of the oppressed and warning the oppressors whilst pointing out the oppressors, those who squeeze out the wealth from the society for themselves because they have not love, because they think not of the other but of themselves and their bellies; To them
I say, 'Be wary of those cheques with lots of noughts, though big-bellied bank accounts, and black lacquered Mercedes.' Your gardens will be trampled upon, your sacred altars under siege, and your fetish idols beheaded. Your houses will crumble. Your books will be strewn on the ground, and your famous thinkers condemned. All traces of your footsteps will be erased and your chests will be pierced with poisoned arrows on abandoned beaches. 
The stories are beautifully written and reads like poetry. In fact, interspersed are pieces of poems. Though they are disjointed the theme of love, humanity, the results of unlove, of egoism, of individualism run through. This theme is not different from Tadjo's non-fiction work on the Rwandan crises The Shadow of Imana.

This is recommended to anyone who would want to try a different kind of African story and at only 104 pages, it does not burden the mind; yet, the reader would leave with something.
Brief Bio: Click Here

Monday, January 30, 2012

131. SHORT STORY MONDAY: Hitting Budapest by NoViolet Bulawayo

Hitting Budapest is the winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011. The story is about five young girls, mostly pre-teen, moving from their shanty town of Paradise to the estates of Budapest in search of guavas and anything that matter. As they make their journey towards Budapest they converse as all children do. It is through this that we get to know that Chipo, a girl of ten years, has been impregnated by her grandfather.

At Budapest they met a white woman of 33 years who had just come from London, eating ice-cream. They looked longingly at this ice-cream only for her to throw what is left of it into the dustbin and take a picture of them. On their way back they shared their dreams with each other: to travel to America, get big houses and cars. Whereas IMF is a street at Budapest, AU is a street at Paradise, the shanty town.

Back at Paradise, the children went to ease themselves in the bush where they saw a woman dangling from a rope - a possible suicide. The children decided to remove the shoes the dead woman was wearing and sell for it for bread.

Initially, this story reads as a metaphor where some Africans in search of better lives travel abroad. Again, Paradise and Budapest represent the economic duality that we have in most countries where extreme poverty exist side by side with all the skyscrapers and glass-houses. However, as the story unfold, the metaphorical view changed.

As the children journeyed in search of guavas as food, they discussed Chipo's pregnancy. Most of them did not know how babies are made with some thinking that God puts it there. However, these same children knew about terrorists who hijack planes. They also know that most people who go to America clean poop in nursing homes. I found this a bit difficult to take.

Like most of the winning stories in the Caine Prize for African Writing, there was defilement, poverty, extreme hunger, dejection, and many more. Whereas some readers, including myself, have bemoaned the trend of the winning and shortlisted stories others have equally embraced them. Irrespective of my belief that even such stories could be written in a different way or from a different angle to make it new, this story reads nicely. The story can be read here.
Brief Bio: NoViolet’s stories have won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing and shortlisted for the 2009 SA PEN Studzinsi Award. Her work has appeared in Callaloo, Boston Review, Newsweek, The Warwick Review, as well as in anthologies in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the UK.

NoViolet recently earned her MFA at Cornell University where her work has been recognized with a Truman Capote Fellowship. She currently teaches creative writing and composition at Cornell. NoViolet was born and raised in Zimbabwe. (Source)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

NEW PUBLICATION: Birds of Our Land and Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away

This year Cassava Republic has two new titles:

The first is a children's guide to West African birds called Birds of Our Land, by Virginia Dike. The book aims to introduce Nigerian children to 25 birds representing the major species in the region. Through rich, poetic descriptions, it explains the basic features of these birds and includes key things to note in observing them. It is also richly illustrated with beautiful paintings by artist Robin Gowen. We believe this book is more than a great read, it is the perfect tool for parents and educators to encourage children to spend more time exploring nature.

Virginia Dike is a professor and head of the Department of Library and Information Science at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and is also a founding member of The Children's Centre Library at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka.

Our second book is the haunting novel, Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, by Christie Watson. Winner of the 2011 Costa Award for First Novel, this beguiling novel tells the story of 13-year-old Blessing and her brother Ezikiel who must leave their comfortable life in Lagos to live with their grandparents in a poor village in the Niger Delta when their father leaves them for another woman. Just as Blessing begins to settle into this new life peopled by unforgettable characters, she finds out that all may not be as it seems. and forces beyond her control threaten to tear the family apart.

Christie Watson has worked for over ten years as a children’s nurse. She has a Masters in Creative Writing at University of East Anglia.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Quotes for Friday from William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

Years ago we in the South made our women into ladies. Then the War came and made the ladies into ghosts. So what else can we do, being gentlemen, but listen to them being ghosts? [10]

Maybe you have to know anybody awful well to love them but when you have hated somebody for forty-three years you will know them awful well so maybe it's better then may be it's fine then because after forty-three years they can't any longer surprise you or make you either very contented or very mad. [12]

Ellen: blind romantic fool who had only youth and inexperience to excuse her even if that; blind romantic fool, then later blind woman mother fool when she no longer had either youth or inexperience to excuse her, when she lay dying in that house for which she had exchanged pride and peace both and nobody there but the daughter who was already the same as a widow without ever having been a bride ... [13]

In church, mind you, as though there were a fatality and curse on our family and God Himself were seeing to tit that it was performed and discharged to the last drop and dreg. [20]

Neither papa nor Ellen said Come back home. No: This occurred before it became fashionable to repair your mistakes by turning your backs on them and running. [28]

His guests would bring whiskey out with them but he drank of this with a sort of sparing calculation as though keeping mentally ... a sort of balance of spiritual solvency between the amount of whiskey he accepted and the amount of running meat which he supplied to the guns. [46]

Boys, this time he stole the whole durn steamboat! [51]

[Y]ou will notice that most divorces occur with women who were married by tobacco-chewing j.p.'s in country courthouses or by ministers waked after midnight, with their suspenders showing beneath their coattails and no collar on and a wife or spinster sister in curl papers for witness. [57]

Or maybe women are even less complex than that and to them any wedding is better than no wedding and a big wedding with a villain preferable to a small one with a saint. [61]

[B]ut the fact that women never plead nor claim loneliness until impenetrable and insurmountable circumstances forces them to give up all hope of attaining the particular bauble which at the moment they happen to want. [63]

Love, with reference to them, was just a finished and perfectly dead subject like the matter of virginity would be after the birth of the first grandchild. [90]

But who knows why a man, though suffering, clings, above all the other well members, to the arm or leg which he knows must come off? [111]

So that he must have appeared, not only to Henry but to the entire undergraduate body of that small new provincial college, as a source not of envy because you only envy whom you believe to be, but for accident, in no way superior to yourself: and what you believe, granted a little better luck than you have had heretofore, you will someday possess; - not of envy but of despair. [117]

Henry, the provincial, the clown almost, given to instinctive and violent action rather than to thinking, ratiocination, who may have been conscious that his fierce provincial's pride in his sister's virginity was a false quantity which must incorporate in itself an inability to endure in order to be precious, to exist, and so must depend upon its loss, absence, to have existed at all. [118/9]

In fact, perhaps this is pure and perfect incest: the brother realising that the sister's virginity must be destroyed in order to have existed at all, taking that virginity in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband; by whom he would be despoiled, choose for despoiler, if he could become, metamorphose into the sister, the mistress, the bride. [119]

[A]nd Sutpen still waiting, certainly no one could say for what, incredible that he should wait for Christmas, for the crisis to come to him - this man of whom it is said that he not only went out to meet his troubles, he sometimes manufactured them. [130]

God may mark every sparrow, but we do not pretend to be God, you see. Perhaps we do not even want to be God, since no man would want but one of these sparrows. And perhaps when God looks into one of these establishments like you saw tonight, He would not choose one of us to be God either, now that He is old. [143]

[I]t would not be the first time that youth has taken catastrophe as a direct act of Providence for the sole purpose of solving a personal problem which youth itself could not solve. [148]

I really requires an empty stomach to laugh with, that only when you are hungry or frightened do you extract some ultimate essence out of laughing just as the empty stomach extracts the ultimate essence out of alcohol. [162]

There are somethings which the intelligence and the senses refuse just as the stomach sometimes refuses what the palate has accepted but which digestion cannot compass [188]

[T]he only painless death must be that which takes the intelligence by violent surprise and from the rear so to speak ..[217]

[T]here was a limit even to irony beyond which it became either just vicious but not fatal horseplay or harmless coincidence. [333]

[T]here are situations where coincidence is no more than the little child that rushes out onto a football field to take part in the game and the players run over and around the unscathed head and go on and shock together and in the fury of the struggle for the facts called gain or loss nobody even remembers the child nor saw who came and snatched it back from dissolution... [333]

[A] man who could believe that a scorned and outraged and angry woman could be bought off with formal logic would believe that she could be placated with money too... [335]

[H]e had learned that there were three things and no more: breathing, pleasure, darkness; and without money there could be no pleasure, and without pleasure it would not even be breathing but mere protoplasmic inhale and collapse of blind unorganism in a darkness where light never began. [374]

[W]hen you are proud enough to be humble you don't have to cringe [410]

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

130. Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom!* (Vintage, 1936; 485) is a story of how a singular decision made by a poor boy, at a time when he was too young to understand anything, caused so much devastation to him and the people around him. The story follows from when that decision, and later others, was made and their effects through the generations, beginning from 1820 when the first malevolent seed was sown to 1910 when the last bitter fruit was harvested, or crushed.

Thomas Sutpen appeared suddenly in Yoknapatawpha County. A strange man with strange looks, strange behaviour, strange language, and nigger followers. A man with an unknown past. A man who at fourteen made a decision, after he had been turned away from a big white house by a nigger who wears nice clothes, to create his own future wherein lies a big white house, niggers, and nobility.

Sutpen was to acquire a hundred-square miles land from an Indian community through a process no one knew or could conjecture. Then he set forth to build his house, having an architect amongst his travelling troupe. Again, through unknown and suspicious means, suspicious to the folks of Jefferson, he built the biggest house and named it Sutpen's Hundred. After which the need for a wife and Nobility arose. Sutpen then fished for a wife from an unlikely man, Goodhue Coldfield. For had Coldfield and Sutpen been twins they would definitely had been fraternal where one would be hedonistic and the other a monk. Goodhue was
a Methodist steward, a merchant who was not rich and who not only could have done nothing under the sun to advance his fortune or prospects but could by no stretch of imagination ven owned anything that he would have wanted, even picked up in the road - a man who owned neither land nor slaves except two house servants whom he had freed as soon as he got them, bought them, who neither drank nor hunted nor gambled; [20]
And from Goodhue Coldfield's home, Sutpen married Ellen Coldfield - a woman who was, initially and falsely, attracted by the house and the pride to live in it. The enigma surrounding Sutpen increased to such an extent that, even though the townfolks weren't certain of the source of his wealth, which seems to move with him into Jefferson anytime he takes a temporary leave, they had him arrested for theft and in his arrest Sutpen was still the unshaken stoic man and it was Goodhue Coldfield who bailed him out and having being bailed out looked no different from before his arrest. A man unmoved by the devices of man or of nature. A man whose sole purpose in life is to acquire certain items in life (including a wife and a name), pick them up like one picks items from a shopping mall, only his had an exceptional kind of determination and zealousness to it so that he would, if necessary, sacrifice his life towards its realisation just as he starved for several days during his journey into Jefferson and braced the cold weather conditions when Sutpen's Hundred was not fixed with its fixtures and fittings. And he was a man who could not accept help from anyone. And so Sutpen married Ellen Coldfield on one rainy day before a dozen witnesses cum audience and had two children Henry and Judith Sutpen, in that order.

What would undo Sutpen was not that Henry was almost effeminate, not as strong as he - Sutpen - was and unable to stand the bloody entertainment his father had with his niggers nor that Judith took his father's boldness. What would undo him is a choice Sutpen made when he run away from home and went to the West Indies in search of the riches that would make him achieve his dream. Not even this for merely fleeing home in search of wealth was innocuous. What would pulverise Sutpen's achievement began with deception.  When he married, bore a son and left mother and son because the son was a negro. Sutpen had earlier been told that Charles Bon's - his son - mother was a Spaniard and not Haitian. When Sutpen - a man who had been turned away from a house by a negro and which had set him on this long journey - found that he had borne a negro, he saw his dream crushing down upon him before it began and so repudiated both mother and son.

Sutpen had achieved all: wealth - he was the largest grower of cotton; the house; the niggers; recognition - he was commended for his part in the war. Yet, he was a man who wanted sons. And it was this quest for sons that destroyed him. For Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen met at the university, became friends, later got to know they were brothers. And Judith fell in love with Bon and Bon wanted Sutpen to accept him as a son and Sutpen didn't want the marriage to materialise and Henry wanted Bon to divorce his octoroon wife in New Orleans, with whom he had a negro son, and Henry not assenting. And it was through this that Sutpen would urge Henry, psychologically, to kill Bon. And Henry would not have done it for he feared not the possible incest, in fact he argued for it. But it was the miscegenation that Henry feared and this was revealed to him by his father. And it was that that destroyed him and Bon. Having lost both sons - one physically the other emotionally, spiritually and all - Sutpen wanted sons who would succeed him. Ellen was dead; died through neglect and pain for all that Sutpen wanted was a woman with a respectable name in his household. In need of sons, Sutpen proposed to Rosa - Ellen's youngest sibling who, born seven years after Ellen's marriage had come to live with her sister - that if she were to make him sons there would be marriage. As an affront on her being Rosa - whose father - Goodhue Coldfield - and all her relatives had died or eloped, moved to his lonely home. In need of sons, Sutpen slept with the granddaughter of a handyman on his property. She did get pregnant but it was a daughter. The interlocked gears which had been set into motion ground all - Sutpens and Coldfields. This destruction brought upon him by his quest for sons is reflected in the title Absalom an allusion to the biblical Absalom, the third son of David, who rebelled against his father and died in that rebellion.

The story had different narratives, including a universal narrator. It began as a narration from Rosa Coldfield to the grandson of Sutpen's only 'friend' in Jefferson, Quentin Compson. Quentin's father also filled him in. Then Quentin himself retold parts of the story to his roommate at Harvard University, Shreve, who himself also narrated parts, or retold parts to Quentin to ensure that he had understood him. What was clear from all these narratives is each narrator's perception or influence on the story: they were more like explaining the actions of the individuals in the story rather than telling it as it is. Consequently, the veracity of what was being told became questionable. Another point about the narrative is the method chosen by Faulkner. The story was told in a repetitive mode, with each repetition adding another layer of information. As the telling spirals inward, the reader get to understand reasons and motives and it is not until the last end, when the story converges, that a concrete picture is obtained.

Aside being enigmatic, his singular purpose of mind in search of riches and, after he attained them, of sons made him a demon to many. He was described in many similar adjectives. Initially, one could not pinpoint what exactly Sutpen did wrong. Was it his goal in life? It could be said that the numerous narrators were all confused and could not explain the man's reasons. Even the few times a somewhat omniscient narrator took over the explanation of the man carried little of essence. So that Sutpen's evilness could lie not in him but within the skewness of the narrative. Irrespective of this, the reading evokes a comparison of Sutpen with Heathcliff (ref. Wuthering Heights). However, when the story developed and the narrators explained, adding and subtracting, they ended up with a Sutpen who, not having killed a person, nor fought anyone, nor stolen from anyone, was still as much evil as evil could possibly be.

A feminist reading of Absalom, Absalom! would be appropriate. For Sutpen was a patriarch who considered women as properties and even though Judith could have been what he wanted Henry to be, he saw through her. Again, to him marriage was for sons and acquiring a wife was akin to acquiring a property. Though the period might have contributed to this, Sutpen's relationship with women quite stood out relative to other couples in the story. 

Absalom, Absalom! could be a difficult read. With its long sentences the reader sometimes loses the message being conveyed for within each sentence lies several diversions, expatiation, and confirmations. Notwithstanding this, Faulkner's storytelling ability is capable of holding one's attention throughout and a dedicated, attentive reading is a necessity for understanding and enjoyment. William Faulkner has a way with words and this shone through too.
* I read The Corrected Text
Read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge and the Chunkster Challenge

Monday, January 23, 2012

129. SHORT STORY MONDAY: Philipp Meyer and Rivka Galchen

 These two stories were taken from The New Yorker June 14 & 21, 2010.

What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone by Philipp Meyer
Max and Lilli had moved from their modest home in Huntsville to a plush neighbourhood in Oaksville. Unlike Huntsville, they were almost unknown in Oaksville, uninvited to parties and were living under the shadows of the teeming 'filthy' rich. Their new neighbourhood was the place where one could be 'sued for painting [his] mailbox the wrong color, for putting up the wrong fence, for installation of unapproved rooting materials...' But Max was not happy for several reasons. Not because his Porsche business was bad, for he was the 'best Porsche mechanic in Texas, the entire Southwest, if he was hones', in fact business was good and could even do favours for those who could not afford his services.

Max was not happy because of Lilli, through whose boss at Goliad Associates, they had heard about the Oaks building, which though had been obtained at half the market price was still expensive. Lilli, whose conviviality, happy-go-lucky behaviour in Huntsville had made her the object of attention at all the parties and gatherings they organised instantly metamorphosed into a calm, taciturn, and extremely cold figure. Perhaps because they were not recognised. But mostly because she wanted Max to live up to the 'standards' of the people of Oaksville to the extent that she bought him his t-shirts. Then there were the rumours. Rumours of Lilli sleeping with other couples in a sort of kinky kind of sex: threesome, foursome. The news was everywhere. Max had married young, had given up college and married Lilli and after over two decades and a son later, he wasn't sure if he was willing to go on with the marriage. If Lilli was still loved him. They had sex and had it even more, especially after what he referred to as Accident.

The Accident involved their son, Harley. Harley had a purpose, an aim to go to College. He was a top-of-class student, not exactly popular but had had enough friends. Even at thirteen, Harley had plans of going to Rice when he graduated. At least until the move that dislocated his plans and distorted his view of life. At Oaksville, Harley had become closer to his mother and Max had become a total stranger. So that when Harley involved himself with coke, it was Lilli who took him to see the shrink and Max had been kept totally in the dark. Currently, Max is in the hospital - having recently come out of coma - recovering from head injuries he had sustained in cells where he was held for drug possession. And it these that Max was thinking about. Struggling to comprehend how a simple move from Huntsville to Oaksville had destroyed his once peaceful, happy family. From a 'do-it-yourself' family, he had entertained the idea of walking off, with his son, leaving Lilli behind. Perhaps he could go with the single lady who seems to want him. He liked that lady but had restrained himself from having sex with her.

Philipp Meyer's story is not a happy one. He investigates, somewhat, what lies behind the facade of richness, of walled communities. And he does a good work with this one.

The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire by Rivka Galchen
This story is seemingly opposite to Meyer's. This time round it was the man who played the woman. Written in the first person, Trish came home one day to find his house less of some items. Initially, it seemed as if there had been a burglary until he found a note addressed to him. It was by her husband, the father of the baby she was carrying, Jonathan.

Trish had always thought that their relationship was without any problem. But Jonathan thought differently. So differently that he blogged about how his wife was getting on her nerves at 'I-Can't-Stand-My-Wife-Dot-Blogspot-Dot-Com'. Trish's brother, who had had suspicions about Jonathan had invaded the privacy of his laptop. Initially, he had had the idea that perhaps it was porn that was the problem. But what he found was weirder than porn, and the mere fact that there was no porn was also 'suspicious'. What Trish's brother then told his sister of Jonathan's blog. Later his friend  - David, who had earlier shown some affection for her - also confirmed the existence of the blog and its content. Trish was determined not to read nor listened to the content from his blog. Though Jonathan had withdrawn money from Trish's account - she was a writer whose debut novel had shot her to fame so that she had a little bit of respect and a little bit of money - under the guise of paying his tuition through business school, he really wasn't a student. No one knew him at that said college. In effect Jonathan was a complete fraud. But Trish still had some love for him.

Thus, in The Entire Northern Side was Covered with Fire, we see Trish trying to accommodate to the sudden 'loss' of her husband and her daughter's father. Rivka Galchen also tries to say something, though not loudly, on the culture of 'keeping out of people's business'. Thus, though his friend and brother knew of he existence of the blog, none could tell her - afraid of hurting her feelings, perhaps. However, according to the brother, he thought it was a joke. 

One common theme I found threading through both stories is an examination of our current chosen mode of living, the current living culture. Or could I have been influenced to see the link where there is none because I read one after the other? All the same, The New Yorker's 20 under 40 is a good read.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

When the Vice President of Ghana Writes

The only Ghanaian president I know of who wrote was Kwame Nkrumah. Much has been said, and on this blog too, about the importance of Nkrumah's writings. This is a man who shared his vision, his aspirations and more about our world through his writings. When leaders show interest in reading and writing it tends to have a trickle down effect. I read Obama's Dreams from my Father when he decided to come to Ghana. I have not as yet got a copy of Bush's Decision Point and I have Jimmy Carter's  Our Endangered Values. In fact, I read how the Obamas went to a small bookshop on Small Business Saturday to buy books for his children. Whereas in the US and elsewhere past presidents spends quality time to write and share with the people their lives before, during, and after office and what made them take certain decisions, it is not so in Ghana. In Ghana, other people writes about them. A memoir that is not written by the person himself still lacks something even if it is an authorised version.

Dedicated book bloggers are few in Ghana and anytime we discover ourselves we talk of how reading is declining and the quality of writing too. Most of the young Ghanaian writers aren't living in the country, showing the difficulty of getting your work published.

Kinna of Kinna Reads, Celestine Nudanu of Reading Pleasure and I decided that we would have to SCREAM for the government to hear in order to arrest the rapid deceleration of our reading culture - Reading Maketh Man. If knowledge is power, then we are gradually losing ours. Extra effort needs to be taken. Publishers of fiction, memoirs, autobiographies by authors living in Ghana could be supported - tax cuts? tax holidays? or free (or reduced-cost) importation of printing materials. Something concrete has to be done. Writing programmes could be organised at the universities. Reading Clubs could be formed in schools and in this direction the Writers Project of Ghana is doing enough but it needs to be supported.

It is in this thinking mood that I was when I saw a picture of the Vice President of Ghana at a book reading in Ghana with such authors as Ama Ata Aidoo, Kofi Akpabli, Nana Awere Damoah. Last year I read that he was writing a book, which scheduled to be launched in July of this year. However, the book has been published and from his twitter conversation (yes he is on twitter) it would be available in Ghana in August. With a literary enthusiast as a Vice President, I think that if readers and writers scream we would have a listening ear.

My First Coup d'Etat by John Dramani Mahama
FROM BLOOMSBURY: An important literary debut from the Vice President of Ghana, a fable-like memoir that offers a shimmering microcosm of post-colonial Africa.

My First Coup D'Etat chronicles the coming-of-age of John Dramani Mahama in Ghana during the dismal post-independence "lost decades" of Africa. He was seven years old when rumors of a coup reached his boarding school in Accra. His father, a minister of state, was suddenly missing, then imprisoned for more than a year.

My First Coup D'Etat offers a look at the country that has long been considered Africa's success story. This is a one-of-a-kind book: Mahama's is a rare literary voice from a political leader, and his stories work on many levels--as fables, as history, as cultural and political analysis, and, of course, as the memoir of a young man who, unbeknownst to him or anyone else, would grow up to be vice president of his nation. Though non-fiction, these are stories that rise above their specific settings and transport the reader--much like the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Nadine Gordimer--into a world all their own, one which straddles a time lost and explores the universal human emotions of love, fear, faith, despair, loss, longing, and hope despite all else.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Two More Challenges Added: Africa Reading Challenge and The 2012 Chunkster Challenge

I have already blogged on the challenges I would be participating in this year. Most of my challenges have been self developed and I hardly join in other challenges except the Ghanaian Literature Week and the Nigerian Independence Book Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna and Amy respectively. This year, I am taking a step away from my comfort zone and participating, formally, in external reading challenges whilst making sure that all books I read also meet other reading challenges such as the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge. 

When I blogged about my challenges for this year, I mentioned the Africa Reading Challenge to be hosted by Kinna. After days of deliberation, Kinna has finally put up the rules for this challenge. The rules are simple. The reader is supposed to have fun and get to explore Africa. He/She at the end would have actually visited several African countries through books. The rules are:

REGION: The entire African continent, including its island-states, which are often overlooked. (Visit Kinna's blog for more).

READING GOAL: 5 books. There are no levels and participants are encouraged to read more than 5 books. Eligible books include those which are written by African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with the historical and contemporary African issues. Note that at least 3 books must be written by African writers.

  1. Fiction - novels, short stories, poetry, drama, children's books. Note: You can choose to read a number of individual and uncollected short stories. In this case, 12 such stories would constitute 1 book. Individual poems do not count.
  2. Non-Fiction - memoirs, autobiographies, history and current events.
  1. Cover at least two regions, pick from North Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, West Africa and Central Africa
  2. Include translated fiction from Arabic, Francophone and Lusophone literature
  3. You can mix classic and contemporary fiction
  4. If you intend to read mostly non-fiction, then please include at least one book (out of the five) of fiction.
MY BOOKS: I have selected books that I think meet the above criteria. Though I do not as yet have a book from East Africa on my shelf, I would be visiting bookshops to meet this target. Though currently, I am only listing five books, ImageNations itself is an African Literature blog and therefore throughout the year I would be bringing you more African books. 
  1. As the Crow Flies by Veronique Tadjo (Translation (French); West Africa (Cote d'Ivoire))
  2. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (Translation (Arabic); North Africa (Egypt))
  3. Writing Free edited by Irene Staunton (Southern Africa (Zimbabwe); Anthology)
  4. Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer (Southern Africa (South Africa))
  5. Madmen and Specialists by Wole Soyinka (West Africa (Nigeria); Drama)
Read more about this reading challenge here. There is a link to sign up.

This reading challenge has several levels. I am opting for the Chubby Chunkster which is for "readers who want to dabble in large tomes, but really doesn't want to commit to much more than that. Four Chunksters is all you need to finish this challenge."

Note that a chunkster is a book of 450 pages or more. Again, I'm using this challenge to reduce the large books on my Top 100 Books Reading Challenge, though I might deviate based on the mood. Selected books I would be choosing from include:
  1. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (483 pages)
  2. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (542 pages)
  3. Famished Road by Ben Okri (500 pages)
  4. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (498 pages)
  5. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (463 pages)
  6. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (523 pages)
  7. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (581 pages)
  8. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (489 pages)
  9. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (562 pages)
The first six books are on my Top 100 Reading Challenge. Read more about this reading challenge here.
Update (March 23, 2012): Those read are linked to the review

Friday, January 20, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Steve Biko's I Write What I Like

Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. [21]

At the heart of true integration is the provision for each man, each group to rise and attain the envisioned self. Each group must be able to attain its style of existence without encroaching on or being thwarted by another. Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination there will obviously arise a genuine fusion of the lifestyles of the various groups. This is true integration. [22]

As a testimony to their claim of complete identification with blacks, they call a few 'intelligent and articulate' blacks to 'come around for tea at home', where all present ask each other the same old hackneyed question 'how can we bring about change in South Africa?' The more such tea-parties one call the more of a liberal he is and the freer he shall feel from guilt that harness and binds his conscience. [23]

They have been made to feel inferior for so long that for them it is comforting to drink tea, wine or beer with whites who seem to treat them as equals. This serves to boost up their own ego to the extent of making them feel slightly superior to those blacks who do not get similar treatment from whites. These are the sort of blacks who are a danger to the community. [25]

These dull-witted, self-centred blacks are in the ultimate analysis as guilty of the arrest of progress as their white friends for it is from such groups that the theory of gradualism emanates and this is what keeps the blacks confused and always hoping that one day God will step down from heaven to solve their problems. [25]

Does this mean that I am against integration? If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up by and maintained by whites, the YES I am against it. I am against the superior-inferior white-black stratification that makes the white a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual pupil (and a poor one at that). I am against the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership is a sine qua non in this country and that whites are the divinely appointed pace-setters in progress. I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people. [26]

The liberal must understand that the days of the Noble Savage are gone; that the blacks do not need a go-between in this struggle for their own emancipation. [27]

Apartheid - both petty and grand - is obviously evil. Nothing can justify the arrogant assumption that a clique of foreigners has the right to decide on the lives of a majority. [29]

At some stage one can foresee a situation where black people will feel they have nothing to live for and will shout to their God 'Thy will be done.' In deed His will shall be done but it shall not appeal equally to all mortals for indeed we have different versions of His will. If the white God has been doing the talking all along, at some stage the black God will have to raise His voice and make Himself heard over and above noises from His counterpart. What happens at that stage depends largely on what happens in the intervening period. [33]

The anachronism of a well-meaning God who allows people to suffer continually under an obviously immoral system is not lost to young blacks who continue to drop out of Church by the hundreds. [34]

The bible must not be seen to preach that all authority is divinely instituted. It must rather preach that it is sin to allow oneself to be oppressed. The bible must continually be shown to have something to say to the black man to keep him going in his journey towards realisation of the self. [34]

Black theology seeks to depict Jesus as a fighting God who saw the exchange of Roman money - the oppressor's coinage - in His father's temple as so sacrilegious that it merited a violent reaction from Him - the Son of Man. [34]

In order to achieve real action you must yourself be a living part of Africa and of her thought; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa. There is no place outside that fight for the artist or for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with, and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity. [35]

Black people must recognise the various institutions of apartheid for what they are - gags intended to get black people fighting separately for certain 'freedoms' and 'gains' which were prescribed for them long ago. [42]

One of the most difficult things to do these days is to talk with authority on anything to do with African culture. Somehow Africans are not expected to have any deep understanding of their own culture or even of themselves. [44]

The philosophy of Black Consciousness, therefore, expresses group pride and the determination by the blacks to rise and attain the envisaged self. At the heart of this kind of thinking is the realisation by blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. [74]

The absolutely infantile evidence upon which the State builds up its cases in some of the trials does suggest to me that they are quite capable of arresting a group of boys playing hide and seek and charging them with high treason. [81]

When I turn on my radio, when I hear that someone in the Pondoland forest was beaten and tortured, I say that we have been lied to: Hitler is not dead, when I turn my radio, when I hear that someone in jail slipped off a piece of soap, fell and died I say that we have been lied to: Hitler is not dead, he is likely to be found in Pretoria. [82]

White people, working through their vanguard - the South African Police - have come to realise the truth of that golden maxim - if you cannot make a man respect you, then make him fear you. [83]

On his own, therefore, the black man wishes to explore his surroundings and test his possibilities - in other words to make his freedom real by whatever means he deems fit. At the heart of this kind of thinking is the realisation by blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. If one is free at heart no man-made chains can bind one to servitude, but if one's mind is so manipulated and controlled by the oppressor as to make the oppressed believe that he is a liability to the white man, then there will be nothing the oppressed can do to scare his powerful masters. [102]

In a true bid for change we have to take off our coats, be prepared to lose our comfort and security, our jobs and positions of prestige, and our families, for just as it is true that 'leadership and security are basically incompatible', a struggle without casualties is no struggle. We must realise that prophetic cry of black students: 'Black man, you are on your own!' [108]

Given the clear analysis of our problems, the choice is very simple for America in shaping her policy towards present day South Africa. The interests of black and white politically have been made diametrically opposed to each other. America's choice is narrowed down to either entrenching the existing minority white regime or alternatively assisting in a very definite way, the attainment of the aspirations of millions of the black population as well as those whites of goodwill. [158]

Besides the sin of omission, America has often been positively guilty of working in the interest of the minority regime to the detriment of the interests of black people. America's foreign policy seems to have been guided by a selfish desire to maintain an imperialistic stranglehold on this country irrespective of how the blacks were made to suffer. [159]

One does not think this way in political life of course. Casualties are expected and should be bargained for. An oppressive system is illogical in the application of suppression. [201]

The existence of a multiplicity of denominations convinces me of the uselessness of organised worship in investigating man's duty to God. Churches have tended to complicate religion and theology and to make it a matter to be understood only by specialists. Churches have tended to drive away the common man by immersing themselves in bureaucracy and institutionalisatioin. [238]

I can reject all Churches and still be Godly. I do not need to go to Church on Sunday in order to manifest my godliness. Yet I do appreciate that all too often people's moral convictions are reinforced by constant revival meetings. If then I go to Church it is more for this type of limited service than because I regard them as having monopoly on truth and moral judgement. If then my motives for going to Church are bound to be limited expectations I fee free to withdraw without any compunctions if and when my expectations are not met. [238]

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

128. I Write What I Like by Steve Biko

Title: I Write What I Like
Author: Steve Biko
Genre: Non-Fiction/Essays/Letters
Publishers: Picador Africa
Pages: 244
Year of First Publication: 1978
Country: South Africa

On January 8, 2012, the African National Congress, the ruling party of South Africa marked its centenary and to celebrate that I decided to read this book. Though Steve Biko ran parallel organisations, The Black Conscious Movement, which was basically to empower blacks to stand for themselves and fight for what they believe in and its political wing the Black Peoples Convention, he has come to symbolise the South Africa's fight against the barbaric and inhuman attitudes meted by the white minority, Boers and even in his writings recognised the ANC has the main group for the old guards like Mandela, Sisulu and others. Thus, instead of talking about Mandela, who is already known, I chose to talk about Steve Biko.

I Write What I Like is a compendium of articles, essays, letters and memoranda by the freedom-fighter-turned-martyr, Bantu Steve Biko. In this collection, put together after his death in police detention in 1977, Steve Biko shares his views and aspirations for a country under apartheid. He visualises and cuts the path that would see blacks move from their lethargic acceptance and grumbling to an energy state where they would see themselves as the only saviours they have and need. As a do-it-yourself person, Steve Biko, early on, saw the struggle against apartheid not as a liberalist fight. For the liberals, mostly white, through no fault of theirs have been born into a system that gives them privileges and rights not earned by any other South African, black or coloured. It is this realisation and his philosophising of the black man's conditions that would become the core of his actions. He saw the liberals as not doing enough to change the status-quo they enjoy, as trying to tell the black man what is good for him. 
Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. [21]
As a testimony to their claim of complete identification with blacks, they call a few 'intelligent and articulate' blacks to 'come around for tea at home', where all present ask each other the same old hackneyed question 'how can we bring about change in South Africa?' The more such tea-parties one call the more of a liberal he is and the freer he shall feel from guilt that harness and binds his conscience. [23]
The liberal must understand that the days of the Noble Savage are gone; that the blacks do not need a go-between in this struggle for their own emancipation. [27]
Liberal organisations such as the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) whose executives were mostly white and which push 'no harder' the problems blacks faced were seen as ineffective in the struggle against apartheid. It was only fitting that the first organisation Steve Biko would form would be a Students' organisation, for he saw the lacuna between the old and young black South Africans. Whereas some of the old were afraid to act, were torn between the Bantustan policies that was trying to divide and rule the country by diverting black South African's attention from the fight against apartheid to a struggle amongst themselves, and some were too slow for young, Biko saw an opportunity to bridge this gap. The South African Students' Organistion (SASO) was formed as a platform to address and push problems facing non-white students.

Biko's ideology was to awakened the catatonic soul of the black man that has made him unresponsive to the daily abuse he receives at the hands of the white man in South Africa. He challenged a system that deemed it best to preserve jobs for a certain category of people based on their skin colour. He criticised a system where blacks were deemed to be illiterate even though the system prevented them from receiving proper education. And his expansive knowledge of issues made him walk in and out of courtrooms and trials a happy man even though he received several detentions and bans. He saw the social vices of blacks, like stealing, murder, fighting, sexual promiscuity, not as an inherent or congenital trait - as preached about by the Nationalist party and some Priests - but as a consequence of the system; a system where the influx control or 72-hour clause restricts Africans to a given district and prohibits movement from one district to the other without government permit to last for more than 72 hours. 

Again, Biko - though religious in a broader sense of the word - saw the harm that Christianity was causing. According to him, the black man does not find himself in the bible and the preaching does not reflect his situation. He made several statements that highlighted the incongruity between the Christianity the white missionaries brought and the practice of that Christianity. For instance, he bemoaned the daily atrocities meted out to blacks in South Africa and intimated
The anachronism of a well-meaning God who allows people to suffer continually under an obviously immoral system is not lost to young blacks who continue to drop out of Church by the hundreds. [34]
To him the bible must be seen to preach against white supremacy and allow blacks to see the evilness of that system rather than making them 'soul-dead' citizens who are seen to be eternally carrying the cross of Christ, waiting for their reward somewhere in heaven. He writes
The bible must not be seen to preach that all authority is divinely instituted. It must rather preach that it is sin to allow oneself to be oppressed. The bible must continually be shown to have something to say to the black man to keep him going in his journey towards realisation of the self. [34]
It is in view of this that Steve Biko advocated for Black Theology, which according to him
... seeks to depict Jesus as a fighting God who saw the exchange of Roman money - the oppressor's coinage - in His father's temple as so sacrilegious that it merited a violent reaction from Him - the Son of Man. [34]
Because a larger population of the South African society were Christians and because the individual priests - black or white - wield enough power in their communities, Steve Biko avoided antagonising them but rather prep them with what is wrong, to work to awaken the self of the African rather than continuously preaching the of Jesus walking water, among others.

Later, Biko formed the Black Conscious Movement, with its political wing the Black Peoples Convention, whilst still working for the Black Community Programme. With BCP Biko worked with the people to build clinics, to let them know that there is more they can do for themselves. All these were done under the watchful eyes of the security system. There several arrests, several deaths in detentions, several demonstrations and several shootings and deaths.

Steve Biko also fought the Bantustan policy where about 13 percent of the land were given to over 80 percent of South Africa population (the non whites) to form homelands. Though some of the leaders like Gatsha Buthelezi, Lucas Mangope, Kaizer Matanzima accepted and later ruled the Zulu, Tswana, and Transkei territories, Steve saw a divide and rule tactics inherent in the system. He saw how the National Party was fighting to divert the struggle to among the people so that instead a united Azania, Steve's name for South Africa, they would be approaching the struggle as different units of people making it ineffective.

After 101 days in detention under Section 6 of the Terrorism, Biko was again banned and restricted to his locality of King but not before he sent a memorandum to a visiting American diplomat, Senator Dick Clark, on American policy towards South Africa. In it he made some demands; but before those remarks, Steve wrote:
Besides, the sin of omission, America has often been positively guilty of working in the interests of the minority regime to the detriment of the interests of black people. America's foreign policy seems to be guided by a selfish desire to maintain an imperialistic stranglehold on this country irrespective of how the blacks were made to suffer. [159]
His restriction to King meant that he does not talk to not more than one person at a time, that two people in addition to him is a crowd, that his name is not mentioned anywhere that nothing he writes is ever to be read at any place. These were to wipe his name from the minds of the people. But Biko survived it all, including death. In August of 1977 he was arrested and through the usual police brutalities sustained brain injuries. Here the evil of apartheid was seen in all its 'glory'. For after the police had hit his head against the wall he was left, chained to the window grille, to recover so that the interrogation would proceed. On September 11, 1977 he, he was loaded in the back of a police Land Rover, naked and chained and was driven on a 1100-km journey to Pretoria to a prison with hospital facilities. He died on September 12, 1977 at the Pretoria prison.

This version by Picador Africa includes a memoir, Martyr of Hope: A Personal Memoir, by Aelred Stubbs an Anglican Priest Steve had close friendship with, sharing his fears and aspirations and considering him as his father.

Steve's death, at the age of 31, caused international protests leading to the UN arms embargo on South Africa. I Write What I Like was a column Steve Biko wrote in SASO newsletters under the pseudonym of Frank Talk. It is through these writings that he shared his visions. This book is recommended to all those who love international politics, who want to know more about a young man's quest for equality. 
Brief Bio: Bantu Stephen Biko was born in Tylden in the Eastern Cape on the 18 th December 1946, the third child of the late Mathew Mzingaye and Alice Nokuzola “Mamcethe” Biko. He attended primary school in King William's Town and secondary school at Marianhill, a missionary school situated in a town of the same name in KwaZulu-Natal. Steve Biko went on to register for a degree in medicine at the Black Section of the Medical School of the University of Natal in 1966.

Very early in his academic program Biko showed an expansive search for knowledge that far exceeded the realm of the medical profession, ending up as one of the most prominent student leaders. In 1968, Biko and his colleagues founded the South African Students' Organisation (SASO).

With the seeds of Black Consciousness having been sown outside of student campuses, Biko and his colleagues argued for a broader based black political organization in the country. Opinion was canvassed and finally, in July 1972, the Black People's Convention (BPC) was founded and inaugurated in December of the same year. Inspired by Biko's growing legacy the youth of the country at high school level mobilized themselves in a movement that became known as the South African Students Movement (SASM). This movement played a pivotal role in the 1976 Soweto Uprisings, which accelerated the course of the liberation struggle. The National Association of Youth Organizations was also formed in order to cater for the youth more generally. (Read more here)

Rating: 6.0/6.0

Monday, January 16, 2012

127. SHORT STORY MONDAY: The Mistress's Dog by David Medalie

David Medalie's story, The Mistress's Dog, should have been read last year as part of the Caine Prize Shortlist 2009 to 2011 Reading Challenge. I carried it with me but never came around to reading it, perhaps preferring to read the books rather than the single stories or perhaps discouraged by seeming bad taste that I found most of the Caine Prize Shortlist. If any of these was the reason why I failed to complete that challenge last year, then I should have persevered since this is a quite different and hilarious story.

The Mistress's Dog was shortlisted for the 12th Caine Prize for African Writing in 2011 and was included in the Caine Prize for African Writing anthology To See the Mountain and other stories (2011). However, it was first published in The Mistress's Dog and other stories (1996 - 2010).

The dog had outlived its owner, The Mistress, and was now in the care of Nola. In fact, it had outlived the two individuals who made Nola's life silently difficult, Nola's husband included. And even though she preferred cats to dogs she had been left with this canine whose life and, with time, death she must look after. An animal that reminds her that there is really an end to life, that to every beginning there is an end, which makes her also think about her own end.

The Mistress came from a rural, religious, and poor background but had 'worked' hard to make a career for herself. She was single but not entirely, and her career consisted of working as a secretary to a powerful man and also as his mistress.
She remained single, devoted herself to what she called her 'career' (she was a powerful man's secretary), and had an affair that endured for over a decade with a married man (that same powerful man).
And this powerful man is Nola's husband. And Nola knew. She also knew that The Mistress was far from what she made people believe she was. So that even though people thought her to be beautiful, bold, daring, unconventional, libertarian, and happy - laughing excessively even when it was not warranted - Nola knew otherwise; she knew she was weak and fearful and frightened of being alone even though she flagrantly displayed her independence, which was limited to only marriage as the powerful man provided for all her needs even when they were not seeing each other again.

After thirty years of service with the powerful man, fifteen of which there was an intimate relationship, the man retired with Nola and so too was the single The Mistress, who thought it unwise to work for any other person. Unfortunately, the powerful man left with his wife to Cape Town leaving The Mistress in Johannesburg. Lonely she grew decrepit and moved into a home for the aged. It was during this time that the powerful man, now weak and suffering, begged her wife to take The Mistress's dog into her keep.

All through the novel, man's name is not mentioned and so too was the Mistress's name. The story provides a hilarious and at the same time scathing look at some of the choices and decisions that have become fashionable these days.
Brief Bio: David Medalie is a South African writer and an academic. He is a professor in the Department of English. His first collection of short stories, The Shooting of Christmas Cows was published in 1990. Prior to its publication it won the Ernst van Heerden Award. His debut novel, The Shadow Follows, was published in 2006. It was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Literary Award for Best First Book and the M-Net Literary Award.  A new collection of short stories The Mistress's Dog was published in 2010. (Read more about him here)

Rating: 5.5/6.0

Friday, January 13, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist

The fact is that ll this softness is the result of smoke; particles of smoke that hang in the still winter air; smoke from that location that lies between the farm and city. It's a cataract over the fierce eye of the sun; it's even possible, some days, to look straight at the sun as if you are staring at the prism deep in the under-water radiance of a star sapphire. [78]

To keep anything the way you like it for yourself you have to have the stomach to ignore - dead and hidden - whatever intrudes. Those for whom life is cheapest recognise that. [79]

- Oh, compassion's like masturbation. Doesn't do anyone else any harm, and if it makes you feel better ... [98]

- I really don't know why I do. But don't you find the people it's most difficult to make confidences to are the ones who are closest to you? In fact confession is best made to complete strangers. Somebody who gets talking to you on a journey. It's easier with someone you don't know at all. - [106]

What begun as their own passion to be let out had long since become a fierce passion to keep out others. [114]

In the cosy dark of other presences, in the intimacy like the loneliness of the crowd, the feel of flesh is experienced anew, as the taste of water is recognised anew in the desert. [128]

Come to think of it all the earth is a graveyard, you never know when you're walking over heads - particularly this continent, cradle of man, prehistoric bones and the bits of shaped stone (sometimes a plough has actually turned one up) that were weapons and utensils. [148]

You can't get through. You are right, reading the cards on the table; charity's a waste of time, towards man or beast, it only patches up a little bit of pain here and there. [199]

There are kinds of companionship unsought. With nature. Nature accepts everything. Bones, hair, teeth, fingernails and beaks of birds - the ants carry away the last fragment of flesh, small as fibre of meat stuck in a back tooth, nothing is wasted. [200]
Read a review of the book here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

126. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

Title: The Conservationist
Author: Nadine Gordimer
Genre: Fiction/Race
Publishers: Penguin Books
Pages: 267
Year of First Publication: 1974
Country: South Africa

Mehring is rich, divorced and somewhat frustrated and, though he has a lot of highly-placed friends, he feels alienated. He also deals in pig-iron, so he doesn't classify himself as part of the oppressors regarding the use of cheap black labour in the mines. But Mehring has a farm as most rich South Africans do. In the context and setting of the story, rich is synonymous to white. Though Mehring has a farm, he does not run it for profit. He sees the farm as a place to escape to from the city and he knows nothing about farming so that blacks like Jacobus and Solomon and others are the ones who run the farm and these individuals were living on the land before it was purchased from the previous owner.

One day, the body of a black man was found on the farm. Mehring was called and he in turn called the police but because it was a black man, no investigations were conducted and the body was buried on location without any fuss. But when farm got flooded after a heavy downpour, the body was uncovered and the locals on Mehring's farm offered him a befitting burial using materials they could gather or borrow. It is the appearance of the dead black man on his farm that got Mehring thinking of his own death and succession.

Mehring was rich but never happy. His wife had divorced him and lived in the US, speaking to him only through her lawyer, and his son is estranged from him because he wouldn't serve in the military and had perspectives about life different from his father's. Thus, Mehring's riches had fewer spenders. But he also had a peculiar thinking, a kind that has ravaged modern thoughts, that he could obtain everything he wants with his money, including women, sex and love. However, seeing the way the poor black folks live on his farm - and he was considered a conservationist at least by the author because he would not allow anyone to take any wild animal from the farm including eggs laid by the guinea fowls - Mehring began thinking of whom the land he farms really belong to. He also felt lonely so that at one point he had to spend his New Year with the black workers on his farm. He knew that the locals were there before the first purchase, before his predecessor and will be there when he was gone. The land will not be truly his even though he had some papers showing that he had purchased and paid for it. The people's claim to it was ancestral and their attachment to it was not cultivated but connatural. 
There'll be dissatisfaction because they were here when he came, they were squatting God knows how long before he bought the place and they'll expect to have their grandchildren squatting long after he's gone. [202]
These were the kinds of thoughts and ruminations, mixed with his own mortality and death, that plagued Mehring in his daily rounds even as he travelled from Japan to South America to Jamaica and back to South Africa and to his farm, making him look like one who was less satisfied with his life than the poor folks were with their poverty. What opened up these wounds was when his workers, especially Jacobus, talk of how his son - Terry - would take over from him after he had finished his school.

With the floods, storms and the destruction of Mehring's farm, Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist could be considered a metaphor and interpreted as the conditions that blacks found themselves in. It could also be considered as a premonition of what was to come. For instance, when the storm came, a tiny ditch carrying trickles of water, in normal rainy weather, accumulated so much water as to carry away cars driven two white South Africans:
But who could ever have imagined that the trickle of water that sometimes dried up altogether for months on end so that that gully was nothing more than a culvert full of khaki-weed and beer cartons thrown in by the blacks, the trickle of water that in normally rainy weather was never more than a gout from the big round concrete pipe that contained it under the road, could become a force to carry away a car and its occupants. [235]
In some way, these gathering floods, which forced Mehring to finally abandon his farm and emigrate to 'one of those countries white people go to', could be taken to be the political force that was gathering in apartheid South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. With this kind of interpretation one will summarise as: the police (white) bearing the authority of the government (white) only covered the dead stranger (black) on a land inhabited by blacks but paid for by whites; but after the floods (political upheavals) the body came up and Mehring (settlers) ran away to wherever he came from in the first place and the people buried their dead because he was one of them in colour and spirit and took over their land. 

Using a mix of narrative formats and deliveries, Gordimer told the story from within the mind of Mehring so that we get to know his fears, even when he was only mentally projecting or playing around with it, and his person. In effect Mehring opened up his consciousness, or the author made him to, to the reader without restriction and this is what makes the book not only an interesting read but also a difficult and discomfiting to get around, at one point reading the 'I', at another 'You', at other places the omniscient takes over. The denser and seemingly impregnable nature makes the reader uncomfortable mentally and physically, as if one is crumpling under a burden and which he cannot also set aside.

The Conservationist was a joint winner of the 1974 Man-Booker Prize.
Brief Bio: Nadine Gordimer (born 20, November 1923) is a South African writer and political activist. She is the daughter of Isidore and Nan Gordimer. She has lived all her life, and continues to live, in South Africa. Gordimer's writing has long dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organisation was banned. She has recently been active in HIV/AIDS causes. 

As a writer she was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature when she was recognised as a woman 'who through her magnificent epic writing has - the words of Alfred Nobel - been of very great benefit to humanity'. Her principal works include A Guest of Honour, The Conservationist, Burger's Daughter, July's People, A sport of Nature, My Son's Story, None to Accompany Me, Jump, Why Haven't you Written: Selected Stories 1950-1972, The Essential Gesture, On Mines and The Black Interpreters. (Sources: Wikipedia & Nobel Prize)
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