Friday, May 31, 2013

May in Review, Projections for June

At the beginning of the month, I was only sure of three titles, one was to be a re-read; I however, stated that I would purchase some Russian literary works to advance my goal of reading Russian literature. At the end of the month I had read a total of four books: 2 of the projected books (Oscar and Lucinda & Saturday); 1 Russian Lit (Crime and Punishment) and 1 Nobelist from Bulgaria (Auto da Fe). The other title which I projected but did not read was Bessie Head's A Question of Power. This would have been a re-read and was directed at the Book and Discussion Club of the Writers Project of Ghana. However, I realised that I still have the story in me and could relate and discuss it without problem.

However, even at my reduced target of 60 books, I am still performing poorly on the average. To read 60 books in a month, one must read an average of 5 books a month; but I am doing less than this requirement. The problem, which is not a problem, is that I am concentrating on a lot of non-African books. So why is this the cause? Averagely, African novels are less voluminous than non-African novels. I will write about this soon. For instance, the voluminous African novel I have read is Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o at 768 pages. Most of the the Heinemann African Writers Series are below 300 pages, which is less than the average pages for a non-African novel. Thus, though I am up in total pages read, I am down on the quantity of books read. Books read:
  • Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. [512 p.] This is the first book I have read by this multiple-Booker Prize winner. The story is about love unfulfilled, about ambitions aborted, about religious misunderstanding or even fanaticism, about exploration and population of a continent. It is a historical novel but not a pastiche. It is about Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Palstrier.
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan. [291 p.] Sadly, this happens to be the weakest book I have read by McEwan though it also treats some very important subjects in a very casual manner. It is about the incidents that occurred in the life of a neurosurgeon, Henry Preowne, in a day. It starts on a dull manner for a greater part of the novel and peaked only about 60 pages to the end.
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky [tr. by Constance Garnett]. [485 p.] I have always wondered why I had never read any Russian novel until I made the conscious effort to. Perhaps, the books are not easily available. This book is an analysis of the human mind. It treats the concept of heroism and zeroism or the extraordinary man and the ordinary man - those who make laws and those who obey laws; those who can step over the line and those who must be in line. It also questions if a crime to avert further crimes is a crime. Thus, is there a positive Iatrogenics regarding crimes?
  • Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti. [522 p.]This book had been in my possession for as long as I could remember. I took if from my parents boxes. I didn't throw it away only because I love books and feel physical pain for such acts. But when I discovered that this Bulgarian won the Nobel Prize, I wondered why I never gave it a thought. This concerns a psychotic bibliomania extraordinaire who happened to marry his house-help after eight years of service. I must say that reading this book after Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is like travelling on a highway; no difference in texture.
Projections for June
In June I would continue with my quest to read more Russian Literature. I will also need to purchase some African books else I would be accused of reneging on my vision for the blog. Thus, June will be a difficult month to predict in terms of reading titles. However, I hope to read the following:
  • The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This continues the goal of reading Russian novels. The Karamazov Brothers is one of Dostoevsky's books recommended to me at the beginning.
  • Infinite Riches by Ben Okri. I refrained from reading this book since 2009 because I wanted to read the trilogy in the order which they came. Though I've read Famished Road (the Book I), I've not been able to access the Book II - Songs of Enchantment. In view of this, I've decided to skip it and read it as and when I get it.
  • Ama by Manu Herbstein. Ama won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa Region First Book Prize in 2002. Thus, it contributes to that very challenge.
  • Palm Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola. The is the Writers Project of Ghana's Book and Discussion Club's book of the month. You are welcome to join in the reading and participate in the twitter discussion of the book. You can follow all tweets about the Book and Discussion Club through the #wpghbookclub hashtag and follow the twitter handle, @writersPG.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mia Couto Wins the 2013 Camões Prize for Literature

Mia Couto
Miguel of St. Orberose informed me of this. On Monday May 27, Mozambican writer Mia Couto - author of Voices Made Night and Every Man is a Race - was announced as the winner of the 2013 Camões, one of the most prestigious international awards honoring the work of Portuguese language writers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

The awarding jury included writers Jose Eduardo Agualusa and Joao Paulo Borges Coelho, journalist Jose Carlos Vasconcelos, professor Clara Crabbe Rocha, critic Alcir Pecora and Ambassador and member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters da Costa e Silva.

The Camões Prize was created in 1988, by Portugal and Brazil, to distinguish writers of the Portuguese language whose work has contributed to the enrichment of the literary and cultural heritage of the Portuguese language. (Source)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Submission Call Outs: The Golden Baobab Prize

The Golden Baobab Prize is in its fifth year. The literary award invites entries of unpublished African-inspired stories written for young audiences below the age of twelve. The mission of the Golden Baobab Prize is to inspire African writers to create enthralling African stories that will inspire the imaginations of generations of African children. 

This year, Golden Baobab will award three prizes:
  • The Picture Book Prize awards $1,000 to the best story written for readers ages 6 - 8;
  • The Early Chapter Book Prize awards $1,000 to the best story written for readers 9 - 11;
  • The Rising Writer Prize awards $1,000 to the most promising young writer below the age of 18.
This year's prize packages include a publishing deal and opportunities to attend exclusive Golden Baobab writers' workshops. Additional rules and regulations can be found on the organiser's website. Please note that the Golden Baobab Prize is open to African citizens of all ages. Deadline for submission is July 14, 2013. Writers are highly encouraged to submit their entries early. 

Golden Baobab seeks to ensure that in the next ten years young Africans everywhere will have access to excellent quality literature that they can relate to. You can help by encouraging eligible persons in your networks to write and submit stories; print out the and put the catchy poster; and/or write a story yourself.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

#wpghbookclub: WPG's Book and Discussion Club's Twitter Book Discussion

The Twitter Book Discussion, an online extension of the Book and Discussion Club of the Writers Project of Ghana, moved into full swing on May 22, 2013 with a discussion of the book A Question of Power. Prior to this a series of quotes had been shared to its twitter followers. The May 22 edition of this monthly book discussion was a huge success with participants coming from several countries. The idea to extend the Book and Discussion Club to twitter was to have as many individuals as possible read and appreciate a book beyond the words. It was also to expand the reach of the BDC which in itself is a quasi-closed group.

At the beginning of every month a book will be announced on WPG's twitter page (with the hand @writersPG) followed by the hashtag #wpghbookclub. All those who would want to participate in the discussion could tweet their intention at this handle and follow it with the hashtag. Readers could share snippets of quotes from the book whilst they read using this same hashtag - to allow for easy access, retweet and response. In the third week, before the physical discussion of the book, a twitter discussion would be held. The date and time for the discussion would be announced at the twitter homepage with the hashtag. Depending on the title of the book, a hashtag will also be created for it.

You are therefore invited to participate in this drive towards encouraging and developing reading and literary appreciation among people. Follow the Writers Project of Ghana and participate in this wonderful, positive initiative.

Friday, May 24, 2013

242. Saturday by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan could best be described as a realist novelist, in addition to other descriptions that could best suit specific novels. For instance, Atonement is somewhat a metafiction where Briony was writing, partly, her story, in addition to being a historical novel. On Chesil Beach is also, somewhat, a historical novel, which, through its characters, provides the pointers of change that has taken place.

Saturday (2005; 291 - Anchor Books) by Ian McEwan is the ultimate realist novel one might read and it is also one that would raise a lot of questions. The story is set on a specific date, February 13, 2003 - the day thousands (if not millions) marched against America's invasion of Iraq following the 9-11 terrorist attack. This attack means that terrorism has become a major topic for discussion including the Perowne household. The Perownes have a peaceful home. Their Blues guitarist son Theo, though has dropped out of school, was far from delinquent and very focused in his career. Their daughter Daisy, who took after Henry's father-in-law - John Grammaticus, was an almost-published poet. Henry is a neurosurgeon and Rosalind was a lawyer. On the day that the story is set, there was to be a family reunion to tidy relations between Daisy and John.

This was the peace of the household until, on the day of the demonstration, Perowne encountered a minor traffic accident with a gang of three but managed to extricate himself from further the physical abuse, after refusing to honour the cash payment demanded by the group. Henry capitalised on Baxter's, the leader, neurological problem. However, Baxter and Nigel would surreptitiously follow Perowne home when the family has gathered and would hold them at knife-point and would begin to toy with them.

Through the story, McEwan discussed the conundrum of good and evil, using the 9-11 attack and the impending invasion of America as the motif. For instance, according to Perowne, Saddam is evil and has done evil things against his people and would need to be removed. However, Perowne was neither pro-war nor anti-war. For him, Saddam must go. He took on this behaviour because of what one of his patients - an Iraqi - had told him, which forced him to read more about Saddam. In an argument with his Daisy, he says that all those who are anti-war are pro-Saddam. The dichotomy of the choice, that you can only be one of two things smacks of George Bush's statement prior to the launch of the Iraqi invasion. In fact, according to Henry, why should one take the negative consequences of war? What about the positives? He argued that the anti-war arguments are speculations about the future and there was no need to feel certainty about it.
But this is all speculation about the future. Why should I feel any certainty about it? How about a short war, the UN doesn't fall apart, no famine, no refugees or invasions by neighbours, no flattened Baghdad and fewer deaths than Saddam causes his own people in an average year? What if the Americans try to organise a democracy, pump in the billions and leave because the President wants to get himself re-elected next year? I think you'd be still against it, and you haven't told me why? [192]
He added, when challenged by Daisy that he loved war, that
No rational person is for war. But in five years we might not regret it. I'd love to see the end of Saddam. You're right, it could be a disaster. But it could be the end of a disaster and the beginning of something better.
As a record of historical events, I wish that Perowne (or McEwan) was right in this instance for any casual observer would realise that he was dead wrong. The war has lasted for more than five years; people are still dying as a consequence of the war; America couldn't pulled out; Saddam was toppled but no democracy has been put in place; people die more than what Saddam was accused of; Baghdad was toppled, and it has become a haven for Al-Qaeda; and ultimately, what Saddam was accused of was never found. Perowne, regardless of his education, was your usual guy who considers his culture above all else. He hates the Chinese for their numbers and the expansion of their economy; he hates the Arabs for making their wives wear burkhas whilst the men wear suits with Rolex watches.

The effect of bombings on the general psyche of the people was also discussed briefly. When a troubled plane forced-landed at Heathrow, both Henry and Theo thought it was a failed Jihadist attack on London. In fact, the authorities thought same until it was discovered that they were not Chechnya Muslims as was suspected and that there was no Koran in the cockpit; but rather they were Christians who care not about religion. It was only when further checks were conducted on them that they were released and allowed to go. Thus, the religious sentiments were also discussed in a non ideological manner; the way the ordinary family would have discussed such matters. No moralising.

The above also relates to media coverage. It was clear that when the media realised that the plane was a distressed plane and that the pilots were not Muslims or terrorists, the news died down suddenly and was relegated to the tail-end of the news. 

Another thread one could pick is the issue of moral responsibilities. Should we separate our emotions from the work we do? When Baxter fell and injured himself in the Perownes' home, it was Henry who was again called to conduct the emergency surgery to save his life. Could this not be described as conflict of interest situation? Would not Henry have been accused if Baxter had died in surgery? These are necessary questions which need to be answered in this situation. Was Perowne morally stronger because Baxter lived? Or because he knew that Baxter was a hopeless case. 

Baxter was afflicted with the Huntington's Disease, which is a "neurodegenerative genetic disorder that affects muscle coordination and leads to cognitive decline and psychiatric problems" caused by the repetition of the 3-letter genetic codon CAG. This softened Perowne towards Baxter's aggressive behaviour, knowing that he had little time left before he is completely incarcerated in a psychiatric institution. The novel is heavy on issues of neurology and poetry. And it is said that McEwan observed the neurosurgeon - Neil Kitchen - at work for the two years he took to write this novel.

Regardless of the above, of all the four novels I have read by McEwan, this would rank low; not because of it is steeped in realism but because the story-line is a bit lethargic. Nothing seems to be happening until the 213th page, when the incident occurred. Yet, this incident - the minor traffic accident, which was meant to carry the story, passed almost smoothly until its repercussions were felt towards the end. McEwan could have written about anything for the entire hundreds of pages. It would take perseverance for a reader not to give up after 100 pages. The use of technical jargon was excessive, especially regarding the neurosurgery; he however showed the extent of research that went into it.

I cannot say I am recommending it or not; but if you are a McEwan fan, you might like it. If you have never read any of his books, I believe this is not the starting point for you. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

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

Though Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) is often cited and used as the beginning of the modern African novel written in English (the book being the first to receive critical global acclaim), it was not necessarily the first novel published in Africa. Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford's Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation, published in 1911, has been cited as, probably, the first African novel written in English. Similarly, Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo's (from South Africa) The Girl who Killed to Save: Nongqawuse the Liberator published in 1935 is regarded as first African Play in English.

In any discussion of initiatory works, especially those in relation to literary works, a distinction should be made between writing and publication with the latter being usually the preferred index. And in so far as recognition could be a function of distribution and, consequently, acceptance, it possibly could be that there was an African novel, prior to this. However, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary - which we do not assume to be the evidence of absence - we shall assume that these books set the pace for the African Literary journey in non-native language.

A cursory comparison of today's literary outputs with these baselines shows clearly that African literature has gone (and is going) through a growth path similar to literature all over the world. There has been such unbounded growth - in terms of number, transformation, and subject - that today the continent could boast of several literary works. This growth has resulted, though this weakly reflects substance, in four Nobel Laureates in Literature - Mahfouz, Soyinka, Gordimer, and Coetzee; one Man Booker International Prize winner - Achebe; and three Man Booker Winners - Gordimer, Coetzee, and Okri.

A century of writing therefore presents an enough time period to allow an epochal studies of African Literature; for concomitant with this growth and transformation are changes, albeit unconsciously, in the collective objective of writers. If writers write from the environment they find themselves in and are influenced by or from the experiences that they go through, then the average theme of novels, plays, short-stories, essays - the gamut of literature, of an epoch will reflect the tidings of that period. Writers' imaginations feed on the environment and creativity is a solution-seeking path, largely.

Consequently, African literature could be put into three basic epochs: the Colonial Period, which represents works produced prior to independence (colonial) and into the first years of self-governance; the Independence Period, which covers the period after independence, and could stretch from 1965 (an arbitrary figure since independence staggered across the continent with Ghana gaining it in 1957 and South Africa coming out of apartheid in 1994) to somewhere in the early 1990s. It also includes the period after the first wave of leaders had failed in their bid to transform their countries, or were deemed to have failed, precipitating an almost-continent-wide coups; and the Democratic Period, covering the period of calm and wide-adoption of democracy. This latter period began in the late 1990s to the present. There possibly could be a fourth, The Exploratory Period, which is nascent.

The Colonial Period (The Identity Era): As expected, themes and subjects of literature in this era focused mainly on the behaviour of the colonists and on the need and importance of liberation or independence. Mixed with these is the fight against European culture which the people, the supposed elite and their followers, had imbued, consciously or unconsciously, into their systems. This epoch could be described as the Liberation and Cultural Struggle and could, thus, be further divided into two categories: the Pre-World War II Period and the Post-World War II Period.

The Pre-WW II Period, stretching from the early to the middle of the twentieth century focused on consolidating African culture that was fast becoming obsolete under the invasion of the European culture resulting from the opening up of provinces and homes to formal western education. Identity and community (Ubuntu) amongst blacks (or natives) were stressed in such literature and so too was the essence of African culture and blackness (or Africanness). Example in Kobina's Sekyi's play Blinkards (first performed circa 1915) and in The Anglo-Fante Short Story (1918) he satirised a typical Gold Coast lady blindly aping British culture. The typical educated, semi-educated, or aficionado of Western Culture, was more likely, in the case of British colonies, to be more British than the Queen. They would organise tea parties wearing of hats (both sexes), gloves (women) and monocles (both sexes) and holding parasols (women) and walking sticks (men). The use of wigs or hot-combs to curl and straighten the hair, and the rapid adoption of foreign names, or anglicisation (or Europeanisation) of local names were in vogue and the preserve of the elites. Literature in this period therefore served to shine the light on this wanton assimilation of the foreign culture by exaggerating profoundly (and even romanticising) the relevance and virtues of the local culture at the expense of the foreign culture. For instance, Eighteen Pence (1943) by R. E. Obeng, which was the first novel in English from the Gold Coast (now Ghana), was "widely admired and discussed, [was] an extended allegory extolling the virtues of a large family, honesty, and the rural life. The author draws attention to the relevance of customs and traditions to life, and to the conflicts and confusion created by the imposition of British colonialism and English law". This was also the period of the negritude movement, a literary and ideological movement developed by Francophone black intellectuals, writers and politicians including the Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, and the Guianan Léon Damas in the 1930s.

Though the writers were fighting against the obvious unrestrained assimilation of western culture, they would themselves be caught in the trap, subtly assimilating the stylistics and structures of the literary works of the colonising culture. The period was known for its conspicuous departure from pre-colonial literature, which was dominated by oral literature and depended on mouth-to-ear narration for survival. However, because contact with Europe had been going on and most Africans had picked up the western form of education and had began using those languages, their writings followed the western format. Poetry became formulaic, following the strict metric structure of the Shakespearean model. In the preface to Enoch Edusei's A Harp of Ghana (1959), he writes:
As will be observed, I have written simple, straightforward verse, in most cases with strict regard to the laws of Prosody, and with a minimum use of poetic license and graces. For a choice I have been partial to Iambic and Trochaic metres; I have been particular, in most cases, about the regularity of feet.

It would be idle, however, to claim that these poems are far from faults or imperfection, and that to the beauty, dignity and vivacity of verse by British and American poets their qualities are any near.
The Post WW II literature concerned itself with the quest for independence, after Africans were forced into a war they saw were not theirs to fight to free the colonialist only to be denied of such freedom at home. When the veterans were refused their due compensation the struggle for freedom increased. Having understood the essence of independence, a general struggle towards freedom ensued across the continent. Ngugi's Weep Not Child (1964) is one of those novels which focused on the discriminatory attitude of the colonisers, signified by the Howlands, and of the dehumanising conditions of the natives, represented by the Ngothos. Prior to Ngugi's publication, Peter Abrahams in Mine Boy (1946), Alan Paton in Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), Ferdinand Oyono in Houseboy (1956), had all highlighted the plight of natives in their various countries. Thus, such writers through their writings posited the need and necessity for independence.

For some countries this period was longer. In South Africa, Pre-Apartheid and Apartheid literature are both geared towards the struggle for the elimination of racial discrimination. It could, aptly, therefore be described as the fight for independence. Nadine Gordimer, the Nobelist, represent this era fully with her range of stories geared towards an assessment of the situation of blacks (or natives) and the need for independence. Such writings include, but not limited to, The Conservationist, Burger's Daughter, and July's People. In Zimbabwe, the Bush War which led to independence was fought for fourteen years (from 1965 to 1979). Shimmer Chinodya's Harvest of Thorns, captures the moment prior to, during, and immediately after the war.

The Independence Period (The Bubble Burst Era): From the late 1950s to the late 1960s, several African countries gained independence. The euphoria that greeted this long-fought independence was high. The expectation was great and the romanticisation deep. Independence, to some, translates directly into economic development and prosperity. This direct linkage, its impossibility, was clouded by the euphoria that met attainment of independence.

A few years into the independence era, the reality dawned on the people. Economic struggle, political agitations and labour unrest and upheavals ensued. The role of the colonialists and of Western countries could not be ignored. Whereas some of these leaders were overthrown in coups like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, some transformed themselves into autocrats and solidified their grasp on power, others were forcefully removed from office and killed, like Patrice Lumumba of former Zaire. Literature emanating from this period was fraught with decay, corruption, rampant arrests and imprisonment of the people. Thus, writers were forced to examine the character of their leaders and their people independent of the colonialists. They - the colonialists - were reprieved. But not entirely. The new leaders were compared with the Lords of the colonial era.

No one symbolises this era more than the Kenyan writer - Ngugi wa Thiong'o. A Grain of Wheat (1967) was written around the period just before Kenya gained its independence and was therefore portentous in its contents. It predicted how the beneficiaries of independence were not the same as those who suffered and died for it. In fact, the problem began on the eve of independence when an elected Member of Parliament swindled a group of farmers. However, the ultimate realisation of this tragedy, the betrayal of the people, when independence became a mere rhetoric, is seen in Matigari (1986). In this novel, written almost two decades after A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi showed how the new rulers of Africa fell deeply in bed with the colonialists - who had transformed themselves and their relationships into an insidious form of colonialism, neo-colonialism. Thus, during this period, the struggle was not against a visible White folk, but a homogeneous black leader who, with his family, lived amongst the people. This was a black-on-black oppression. This new leadership, having won power, became that which they had fought against. This behaviour of greed, self-aggrandisement, smacks of what Ngugi said:
Blackness is not all that makes a man ... There are some people, be they black or white, who don't want others to rise above them. They want to be the source of all knowledge and share it piecemeal to other less endowed. That is what's wrong with all these carpenters and men who have a certain knowledge. It is the same with rich people. A rich man does not want others to get rich because he wants to be the only man with wealth ... Some Europeans are better than Africans ... That's why you at times hear father say that he would rather work for a white man. A white man is a white man. But a black man trying to be a white man is bad and harsh. (Weep Not Child, Heinemann Publications, Page 22)
Bessie Head also made a similar statement:
When someone says 'my people' with a specific stress on the blackness of those people, they are after kingdoms and permanently child-like slaves. 'The people' are never going to rise above the status of 'the people'. They are going to be told what is good for them by the 'mother' and the 'father'. (A Question of Power, Heinemann Publications Page 63)
The frustration of this period is symbolised by Kihika in Ngugi's AGoW. Consequently, writings of the period were fraught with these frustrations. Corruption and decay - sometimes symbolised by scatology - became the major theme. The following authors: Ayi Kwei Armah in The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born (1968), Chinua Achebe in A Man of the People (1966), and Kojo Laing in Search Sweet Country (1986), discussed the bursting of the independence bubble and the problem that came with it.

The Post-Independence (or Democratic) Period: This period is marked, politically, by the return to democracy of most countries, and socially, by the rise in rights activism, which in itself results directly from the liberty and freedom emanating from the former. On the literary front, it is marked by the discussion of gender (or women) issues and alternative routes to development. Issues of corruption could be seen in this form of literature; however, the insidious participation and encouragement of the neo-colonialists, now correctly identified by writers, are mentioned, alluded to, or fully developed. One classic work which expands on all these themes is Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow (and its characters of Kamiti and Nyawira). Works during this period also questioned the changed value-system from such intrinsic qualities as togetherness to our avaricious, red-eye quest for wealth; or Materialism. So that one will meet such authors as Ayi kwei Armah questioning what the true-end of education has come to mean in Fragments (1969); and Chinua Achebe wondering how corruption has become one with the educated and political elite in No Longer at Ease (1960) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) respectively.

The women in this period wrote mostly about the growing disparity between men and women or about their supposedly marginalised role in society. The quest first is to expose the wound and, then following it, find the cure. This could be seen in works of such authors as Buchi Emecheta (Joys of Motherhood, 1979), Tsitsi Dangarembga (Nervous Conditions, 1988), Mariama Ba (So Long a Letter, 1979), Chimamanda Adichie (Purple Hibiscus, 2003), Neshani Andreas (Purple Violet of Oshaantu, 1988), Ama Ata Aidoo (Changes, 1991). This was the period of marked awareness and of the fight for gender equality through affirmative actions and the development of social consciousness. Sexual orientation has also become part of the debate. Probably, the first of which, dealing exclusively with homosexuality, is by the Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu in his book The Hairdresser of Harare (2010). Another that could also be mentioned is the 2012 Caine Prize shortlisted story, Love on Trial, by S. O. Kenani.

Another key literature within this period is the migration-literature of Africans who emigrated out of their home countries to Europe and America for further and better education or economic opportunities. These folks usually write about the cultural shock they encountered, the racism they had to face, and their longing for home. Some romanticise home; others morbidly describe why they had to leave. One can mention Brian Chikwava's Harare North (2009) and Benjamin Kwakye's The Other Crucifix (2010), as examples. The generations after the emigre parents also do sometimes tend to wish to discover their roots; they search for a home to belong to; for one has to belong somewhere. Unlike their parents, they may face little racism and discrimination. But they are the ones who usually question the essence of home and where it really is, for they are first Europeans or Americans before they are anything else. Their mannerisms, far different from their parents make them unique and conspicuous when they make that journey to their parents' home. Works in this category could include Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond's Powder Necklace (2010) and Sophia Acheampong's Growing Yams in London (2006).

Exploratory Period: There possibly could be another period, not fully fledged out yet but which could be all the same isolated. This period is marked by the expansion of themes. It may not necessarily be a conscious act to redefine what the African novel should be but that is what these writers are doing. They have moved away from the idea of poverty and disease being the sole African theme. They have ventured to take on the entire universe. It is their motif. They won't be confined by labels or boundaries. They explore the universe with their writings. Perhaps influenced by such writers as Kafka, Mann, Nietzsche, and others, they go beyond the physical environment into the mind. For instance, Martin Egblewogbe's Mr Happy and the Hammer of God and Other Stories (2008 & 2012) is an anthology that deals exclusively with man's place on earth, exploring the psyche and the metaphysical. Another author of this mould is Alain Mabanckou (in African Psycho, 2003). Kojo Laing's writing do question world events in a similar psychological way. The author throws away novelistic requirements and writes about life in a unique way. His novel Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters (2006) covers several issues including genetic engineering and religion; his short story Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ is difficult to place. Another writer whose work is beyond classification is Ben Okri. In The Famished Road (1991) and Incidence at the Shrine (1993), Okri shuffles reality to the point of nonrecognition. He mixes realism with surrealism and makes magic with his characters. However for such Lusophonic writers as Mia Couto (Every Man is a Race (1991), and Voices Made Night (1990)) and Jose Eduardo Agualusa (The Book of Chameleons (2004)) such magical descriptions is their second nature.

Regardless, there are still other writers whose works would be very difficult to place. The above therefore is an arbitrary placement of works. Any reader could argue with it. But it provides a starting point to analysing African literature.
[Caveat: In order not to confuse students of literature it must be stated clearly that the writer has acquired no formal learning in literature and so is incapable of using such academic jargon that speak to the learned ones in this field. What he has done here is purely based on observations from his reading.]

Updated: August 27, 2016: I wrongly stated that there has been two Man Booker Prize Winners instead of three (3). I left out Nadine Gordimer.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Nigeria Dominates the 14th Caine Prize Shortlist - 2013

This year's Caine Prize for African Writing shortilst, released on May 15, was dominated by Nigerians. This emphaises Nigeria's long-held and enviable position as the powerhouse of quality and prodigious Literature on the continent; perhaps only South Africa can 'compete'. Four of the five stories that made up this year's shortlist were by Nigerians. The fifth story is by a Sierra Leonean. Nigeria has produced such great writers as the Nobel Laureate, Akinwande Oluwole (Wole) Soyinka; the Man Booker International Prize Winner, Chinua Achebe; Elechi Amadi; John Pepper Clark; Ola Rotimi; and others. One can also mention many of the new generation of writers such as Chuma Nwokolo; the Booker Prize Winner, Ben Okri; the Orange Prize Winner, Chimamanda Adichie; and others. We can talk of Nigerian writers forever. According to the Chair of Judges, Gus Casely-Hayford,
The Shortlist was selected from 96 entries from 16 African countries. They are all outstanding African stories that were drawn from an extraordinary body of high quality submissions.
Could Nigeria's dominance with quality literature have been due to the vibrant publishing industry in the country? Yet, it is also clear from the shortlist (below) that only one of the stories was published in Nigeria. One can therefore say that writing is embedded in the DNA of the Nigerian. The average Nigerian command over the English language and their diction is unique.

Another unique phenomenon, keeping up with the last year's, is the subject. Prior to 2012, the Caine Prize became notorious for award certain peculiar stories. Stories of extreme hunger, poverty, unconditional scatology, which represents nothing but base, and other stories in similar vein. Last year the Chair of Judges, Bernadine Evaristo, sought to go 'beyond the more stereotypical narrative.' The 2013 CoJ, Gus Casely-Hayford, might have kept faith with going beyond the stereotypical. In describing the 2013 shortlist, he says
The five contrasting titles interrogate aspects of things that we might feel we know of Africa - violence, religion, corruption, family, community - but these are subjects that are deconstructed and beautifully remade. These are challenging, arresting, provocative stories of a continent and its descendants captured at a time of burgeoning change.
I hope they provide an alternative to the common narrative; I hope they do not revert to the previous and that even when they discuss such issues they would be more penetrative, investigative, or psychological treatment than mere arrangement of images.

This year's shortlisted stories are:
  • Elnathan John (Nigeria) Bayan Layi from Per Contra Issue 25 (USA, 2012)
  • Tope Folarin (Nigeria) Miracle from Transition, Issue 109 (Bloomington, 2012)
  • Pede Hollist (Sierra Leone) Foreign Aid from Journal of Progressive Human Services, Vol. 23.3 (Philadelphia, 2012)
  • Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria) The Whispering trees from The Whispering Trees, published by Parresia Publishers (Lagos, 2012)
  • Chinelo Okparanta (Nigeria) America from Granta, Issue 118 (London, 2012)
The Winner of this £10,000 prize will be announced on July 8, 2013 at Bodleian Library, Oxford. Read more here.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

DISCUSSION: Reading Translations

The vast number of written languages means that we would need translators to be able to read literature from different areas of the globe. Today, translators have made it possible to read books originally written in Sanskrit, Arabic, Japanese, Cyrillic, Korean, French, Russian etc. in any other language. But translators are humans and do take liberties in their translations. This problem arises because language is not formulaic and therefore lacks the one-to-one mapping. Certain phrases are incapable of being rendered in any other language apart from the one it was written in without losing its meaning, essence, beauty, and literary purpose. The work of translators is therefore cut-out for them: translate the work the best way possible. But there is a trap here: there is no best way. The best way depends on the objective of the translator: is the translator seeking beauty? true-to-text? readability? These would determine the outcome of the translation.

And publishers also complicate the translation process. Sometimes, they produce abridged versions, graphic novel versions, of translated works. Sometimes they want to reach a certain type of audience. It is no wonder that there are about twelve (12) English translations for Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace alone. My version of W&P was translated by Anthony Briggs. My versions Crime and Punishment and The Karamazov Brothers were translated by Constance Garnett. I read somewhere that Garnett's translation is dated, inaccurate, and not true-to-text; that if you read, you're not reading Dostoevsky but Garnett. A statement like this is enough to shatter the joy of reading. We are told that translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are the most accurate.

The question is: what do you do in the face of these numerous translations, each claiming to be the best? How do you choose one over the other? Do you assess which translation to read? Or do you read whichever you lay your hands on - which is what I do because of limited choice? Or do you read more than one translations? What is your view of these translation wars? What will make you choose one over the other?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

241. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Oscar and Lucinda (Faber and Faber, 1988; 512) by Peter Carey won the Booker Prize in 1988. It was also short-listed for the Best of the Booker in 1993 to celebrate the award's 25th anniversary alongside such books as Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (the winner), The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer, Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, and The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell. 

Oscar and Lucinda is a quasi-romance, quasi-historical, novel narrated by the great grandson of Oscar Hopkins but in an omnipresent manner. The story, though a narration, explored the pathways, decisions, eccentricities, trials and tribulations, and weirdness of Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier. The story traces the lives of these two eccentrics before they met on the Leviathan on their way to Sydney and after they arrived. It details their inchoate love affair, their problems, and their doom.

Oscar Hopkins brought up in a strict religious home, by a father, Theophilus Hopkins, who  was a preacher at the Plymouth Brethren and also a biologist. At a young age of fifteen, whilst throwing lots, Oscar believed he saw signs from God to become an Anglican. Unable to avoid the persistent signs directing him to Rev. Stratton's homestead, he migrated from his father's house to the home of the Anglican priest, leaving Theophilus in tears and prayers. Later, at Oriel, Oscar would enrol to become an Anglican priest. And there, at Epsom, Oscar would officially begin his gambling escapades, with the belief that it was a message from God and therefore divine and not sinful if he did not live a pleasurable lifestyle on his winnings. Thus, even though Oscar developed a complicated system that ensured that he won consequential amounts and repeatedly, he never sought to live off his proceedings but to give it out to charity after he had paid his tuition fees and all his necessities. He bought his coats, shoes, and clothes from the flea market where the poorest of the poor patronised. As noble as his ideas were, gambling would gradually become an obsession and he for this he would travel to place bets on horses and on Sundays would sneak into obscure gambling hideouts to place bets on dogfights. To leave this life behind, Oscar decided to set out to the colony of Australia; there he decided to begin life anew, one devoid of gambling.

Lucinda Laplastrier's parents had moved to Australia. They settled at Parramatta and have appropriated huge acres of land for themselves, from the blacks. Now upon the death of Elizabeth - she being the only living relative Lucinda had following the death of his father earlier - the land was subdivided and sold and the proceeds handed over to her when she turned 17. Having come into this sudden and stupendous wealth, and being weighed down by its source, Lucinda - after leaving Parramatta to Sydney - resorted to gambling, compulsively. This gambling addiction, at the subliminal level, was an attempt to justify this wealth. 
Likewise this wager - she saw now, with her head pressed hard against the window pane, with her eyes tight shut, that she had only made this bet so that she might finally do what she had never managed to do upon a gaming table, that is to slough off the great guilty weight of her inheritance, drop it like a rusty armour she did not need, that she be light as a feather, as uncorrupted as an empty purse, unencumbered, naked, with her face pressed into the soft and secret place at the bottom of his graceful neck. [446]
Lucinda's desire was to liberate her womenfolks from the domination of men. She would buy a glass factory upon reaching Sydney and would later find that the quest to liberate could possibly be beyond her for she herself had to tolerate snide remarks, tirades, denigration, and discrimination, including from her male workers, for remaining unmarried and for her love for gambling and would travel to England in search of a man. However, Lucinda's eccentricity is not that she broke the gender-defined borders with her gambling and Bohemian lifestyle, but that even though she gambled and placed her lots wantonly and even toyed with the idea of the working class, she was also very scared of losing her wealth. Lucinda was morbidly scared of poverty.

The two - Lucinda and Oscar - would meet on a ship, the Leviathan, bound for Sydney, from England. They would be attracted  and bound by their common love, gambling, and would later place the ultimate bet - borne out of mis-communications and mal-communications; a bet to transport a glass church from Sydney to Boat Harbour in the interior regions of Australia, that would spell their doom. To one this bet was a test of love; to the other, it was an expression of love.

Several issues come to the fore in this novel. First, the failure of Lucinda to liberate her sex reflects ironically, to an extent, some of the issues raised by Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure. Specifically, the effect of societal expectations, perceptions, prescriptions, formal and informal regulations about marriage, relationships and gender-specific behaviours and in particular reference to young free-spirited women. The effect, in this case, arose not from the couple's unwillingness to formally marry as in the case of Sue and Jude. It arose from their inability to transform their love-tensed friendship into marriage due to their inability to freely communicate their emotions to each, which in itself is a direct result these social norms. Consequently, the two then became societal outcasts, albeit for very different reasons. Oscar was defrocked for gambling and associating with an unmarried woman. Lucinda, was on the other hand, informally neglected and shunned by society for not behaving within the norms and values required of her sex; for attempting to break, and breaking, the gender barrier that separates her sex from men by engaging publicly in gambling and accommodating a man - Oscar - she is not engaged to. 

The second issue is the treatment of native black Australians. They were almost described and referred to as items, which depicted what the case was during the time, and were on the periphery of the story. They never had emotions, were never individuals (except one) and were always referred to en bloc. When Mrs Burrows husband was killed it was said:
Mrs Burrows, a vocal supporter of the American rebels, was the widow of an army captain who had been killed by blacks in the 'Falls' district near the head-waters of the Manning River [160]
'He was killed by blacks', as if 'blacks' here is in reference to a disease. In this way, Oscar and Lucinda partly dealt with the unsavoury part of Australian history. It also captured the migration to and population of that continent and the gradual crowding out of the natives.

There are several twists and turns that would likely surprise the reader. In one instance, one might think that Peter Carey is taking them to in one direction only to realise that it was not so. For how Oscar left his seed in Boat Harbour the instance of his arrival is shocking. Sexual suppression, in relation to social norms, was another subject matter. It was clear that both Oscar and Lucinda suffered from their inability to live their sex and to respond to their emotional needs.

Oscar and Lucinda is a worthy read.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Additions to the Library

This year is supposed to be the Year of Russian Literature, meaning that I begin to read and acquaint myself with Russian Literature and be able to talk on them. No particular Russian authors were listed; the only requirement is for the author to be from Russian. So far, I have only two books: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and The Government Inspector by Nikolai V. Gogol. Regardless, Russian Literature will be incomplete without certain classic names and it was only a matter of time that I read some of these names.

This week I have added two Russian books - by the same author - to my library. They are those that were over-recommended by friends and which I (or a friend) happen to find at the Legon Bookshop. I am ultra-conservative when it comes to books and so when I say I have purchased a book or added a book to my library, I mean a physical book to a physical library. The following are the books:
  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. [From the Blurb of the Wordsworth Classics edition]: Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest and most readable novels ever written. From the beginning we are locked into the frenzied consciousness of Raskolnikov who, against his better instincts, is inexorably drawn to commit a brutal double murder [...] The result is a tragic novel built out of a series of supremely dramatic scenes that illuminate the eternal conflicts at the heart of human existence [...]
  2. The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky. From the Blurb of the Wordsworth Classics edition]: As Fyodor Karamazov awaits an amorous encounter, he is violently done to death. The three sons of the old debauchee are forced to confront their own guilt or complicity. Who will own to provide. [...] The search reveals the division which rack the brothers, yet paradoxically unite them. Around the writhings of this disfunctional family Dostoevsky weaves a dense network of social, psychological and philosophical relationships. [...]
Actually, these books are common and I would assume that most readers have read them. Both books were translated by Constance Garnett. What do you think of this particular translation? Is it true to the Russian text?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

DISCUSSION: Lapse between Reads

Readers love to read. That is it. Nothing more. A reader usually either has a book in mind or lined-up even when he has about two or three others in progress. By the way I do not read more than one book at a time; but I have been distracted with my reading - several times - by books that are nudging at the base of my mind, knocking harder and questioning why they have been kept on the shelf for that long a time. Consequently, book after book after book, a reader grazes his way through tonnes of words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, leaving in his wake countless books.

As a reader - and I suppose you are one because you are here reading this - do you leave days between the completion of one book and the beginning of another to cogitate over the previous read? If so, what is the average number of days do you leave? Or do you pick another book just after turning over the last page? (Like I mostly do). It is true that there are times when it is difficult to read, to even pick a book and glance through. Yes, these things do happen. What I am asking refers to your reading peaks.

If I complete a book in the morning or afternoon, I pick another book but do not read it immediately. I play with it, read the blurb, the praises and any other thing but the content itself. At least, not until the next day. However, nowadays, I'm beginning to leave a full-day in between reads to reflect and form my opinion over the previous books. This way I am able to appreciate the book and arrange my thoughts to assess whether it was a good read or not.

What is your reading formula?

Friday, May 10, 2013

240. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Art is usually marked by epochs. For literary writings such epochs include the Medieval, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic Period, the Transcendental Movement, the Victorian Period, the Realism, Naturalism, Existentialism, Modernism and others. Most of these eras are not distinct and there are overlaps. Sometimes one era would begin and end within a longer era. These timelines, though sometimes specific to countries, do have a universal application.

Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957; 291 - Penguin Books) is regarded as the flag-post of an epoch the author, it is cited, to have named. The Beat Generation, spanning a period of roughly two decades - from the end of the Second World War (1945) to 1965 - included such beautiful poets as Allen Ginsberg. This postwar period is marked by wanton search for happiness, freedom, self-discovery, and the meaning of life. The individuals in this period are like just-released cage birds. They fluttered across America in search of happiness and meaning, going against popular 'wisdom'. They are the deviants whose creative lives were not different from their everyday lives. They were not writers by night and any-other-thing-but-a-writer by day. They eat, breath, drink, and ease their arts. Consequently, this freedom to experiment new ideas, to travel to new unknown places without a map or a clearly mapped out idea. This flaneur-like behaviour produced variants art forms. Naturally, the backdrop of this movement were the jazz movement, drug use, and poetry. It could possibly also be the era of the demystification of sex as a hallowed activity.

In Kerouac's novel - On the Road - Sal Paradise (a quasi-characterisation of the author), a writer, travels across America to experience and live life. He embarked on this coast-to-coast journey to see friends, some of whom he had only heard of and did not know personally, not because he had enough resources to finance his travel. Not also because he had relatives along the routes. And this distinctive characteristic is what makes individuals who lived the Beat Generation different from your regular tourist who had saved enough to spend, had planned their routes and know when to depart from their destinations. Sal, was no such person. The only thing he knew was that he had to travel, to meet friends, and find meaning in life.

Through his travels he would meet friends who would affect his perception, and he would see how other people lived their lives. He was able to compare both rural and city lives. Through Sal's observations, Kerouac portrayed the landscape of postwar America, of how 'The Other' lives, those that were, and still are, less written about; those outside the reach of the mainstream; those who have been referred to by several derogatory names but whose life-blood feeds America's subculture and keep it alive, providing the necessary heartbeats, the lubs-dubs, in this cataleptic, comatose, consumeristic country America has become. Through Sal, the author shows that 'buddyism' is the essence of life, not materialism. He shows how thin the line between living and existing is. He shows how vain we are: that destitution is not far away, that poverty - leading to mendicancy and then to episodic insanity - can become everyone's lot; but more importantly, Jack Kerouac, shows how mortal we all are: that death comes, in the end, for all.
I had travelled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was aback on Time Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions of a madness hustling for ever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream - grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City. [102]
Though the thrill-seeking adolescents and the young adults were capricious in their decisions and extempore in their actions - their lives fraught with wanton sex (and sometimes orgy), booze, recklessness, and were not bogged down by the concept of tomorrow, the American work ethics, that do-it-yourself attitude, the I-can-do spirit, the I-am-responsible-for-myself thoughts, which were the ideals of a long-lost period, are the most important flotsam of this work. They are what readers can gather into their pockets. Though Sal and his friends were fraught with lack, they worked to earn their living, they searched for solutions for their problems, and where it became extremely difficult they sought for help from friends. Whatever the scenario, they were not passive.

Written in the first person - by Sal Paradise - the novel relied heavily on American slang making appreciation sometimes difficult. This geo-specificity of certain jargons made some issues, events, and parts of the narrative near-impervious to my uninitiated mind. Regardless of these, the novel do open the reader's eyes to a period of American life that would be very difficult to replicate today. The difficulty of replicating the kind of lifestyle the creators and participants of the Beat Generation lived in the Twenty-first Century America is clearly expressed by the horrendous life of Chip in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. This is a landmark book, the reason it is regarded as an American Classic.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

239. My First Coup D'etat - Memories from the Lost Decades of Africa by John Dramani Mahama

My First Coup D'etat - Memories from the Last Decades of Africa (Bloomsbury, 2012; 318) by John Dramani Mahama is a memoir spanning the period of his childhood to the time he arrived from Russia after his postgraduate degree. Though this is a memoir of the author, it is also his memories in relation to his family, his country - Ghana, and Africa as a whole.

John Dramani Mahama talks about his childhood experiences in all the places he has lived - Damongo, Busunu, Accra, Tamale, Nigeria, and Russia. However, the major subject that runs through this memoir is the numerous coups that plagued the country and the continent during the period and their effects on him and his family; but more especially the effect of the 1966 coup that toppled Nkrumah's government of which his father was a Minister of State.  Mahama's father was among several other government politicians who were arrested and detained after the coup. The most conspicuous effect of the author's father's arrest and detention was how Mahama, then a seven-year pupil of Achimota school, was left stranded at school when school had vacated and all pupils had gone home, because the coup and his father's subsequent arrest and summary detention meant there was no one to pick him up. Even more worrisome was the fact that when he came home with his school-mother, the house they lived in was under military guard and both he and the woman had to go back and find other solutions. This is indicative of the fact that repercussions of coups go beyond the immediately observable incidents - the deaths; it also has its psychological effects on completely unsuspecting individuals.

The family was to be again affected by two other coups. The effect of Acheampong's coup was mixed. The author's father who had by then gone into farming after his release from detention, because he had been banned from holding any public office for a decade, benefitted significantly from Kutu Acheampong's agricultural policies of Operation Feed Yourself and Operation Feed Your Industries. E.A. Mahama, the father, got closer to the military leader through the success of his rice farm, which won him several best farmer awards. However, when he, the father, personalised the friendship and sought to advice the leader that it would be prudent to leave when the 'applause is loudest', the military leader took it differently and E.A. Mahama was 'taken in' for questioning in an attempt to unveil the motive behind this unsolicited advice. However, it was the Rawlings-led Coup of 1981, overthrowing Hilla Limann's government, that pushed E.A. Mahama, who had become a leading member of that party, into exile. Having promised never to go to jail, his children whisked him away into neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire when his name was mentioned among the names of individuals who had to report at the barracks 'for their own safety'.

There is some ambiguity in Mahama's (the author's) life as described in the book. On one hand his home was better than the average Ghanaian - thus, one could - in the context of Ghana - say that he was a privileged child, regardless of the ups and downs that came with it. However, his individual life - isolated from that of the family, was average. He talks about his love for a neighbour's daughter and how he felt anytime he saw her, before they became friends. His descriptions of his heartbeats and sweaty palms could be shared by many an individual. And the emotions that burst out when he managed to gather enough courage - albeit through his friend who was also the girl's brother - to express his love for her was well captured. Here Mahama's eye for details came to the fore. Exchanging perfumed letters and reading over and over again, as if each reading will reveal a different meaning, are activities that could be shared by many. Though some of his childhood memories or events are location-specific, most could be shared.

One of the effects of the coup was that the author had to move from Accra to Tamale, which also led to a change in school. Mahama developed his interest in politics, especially his socialist ideology, early in his secondary school life. He was among those who campaigned against Acheampong's Union Government at Ghana Secondary School. This interest in politics - or more specifically socialist ideological thoughts - was developed by his teacher-friend (Mr Wentum). His interest in politics continued at the University of Ghana where he stood, won, and became the secretary of the Student Representative Council, after he had lost the position of Vice President of the Junior Common Room the previous year. Ironically, it was in Russia where he came into direct contact with practical socialism that he was able to reconcile his socialist ideas and its quest for a classless society with his fathers rice farm and processing factory (a capitalist venture with profit motive). Prior to that his socialist ideologies, theoretical at the time, did not fit his father's rice-farming and processing venture. But in Russia, observing the desperateness of the people, he realised that the extremes of both capitalism and socialism would not create the type of world we want to see.

This memoir's motive, perhaps, was to highlight Africa's turbulent past, a past fraught with coups, coup-plots, and counter-coups, a past where a lot was lost because countries could not find their feet, because the continent was entangled in ideological fights, which was also clearly a fight for world-control. 

Like all memoirs this is a selection of memories the writer wants to share. However, one either has to drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring. What was clear was the major gaps a casual reader will likely not miss. For instance, little was said about his life at Ghana Secondary School - part from his relationship with his Mentor Mr Wentum; yet it is not lost to us that secondary school presents the platform for the most delinquent and memorable occurrences. It is where all recklessness take place and whose experiences remain on our lips until our dying day. Also missing was most of Mahama's life at the University of Ghana and his life in Russia. His experiences in these areas would have enriched the book further.

However, one cannot help but note that My First Coup D'etat also excludes the President's active political life. And it is in this vein that I sit in the hope that there is a second book to cover this period. In fact, the author himself stated in the blurb that he is working on his second book. But we can also be sure that this would not be completed anytime soon. Mahama's decision to put down this memoir needs to be appreciated and encouraged, for very few presidents write memoirs, especially those on the continent, and fewer still largely-write it themselves. Aside Kwame Nkrumah, who authored several ideological books, the other leader who had self-authored a book could possibly be Dr K. A. Busia.

Yet, no matter the volume of deletions and cut-outs one will make in a memoir, they are the key to understanding and knowing a person, if one reads between the lines. It is for this reason that one must read such books. Mahama's book is fun to read, albeit somewhat incomplete. It shows one who accepts his limitations, the boundaries of his knowledge and the fluidity of life. He tries to avoid the subtle trap of epistemic arrogance that inundates leaders and make them believe they are the Only One who what their country needs. In avoiding this, he believes that one need not rush into making decisions which would have far-reaching consequences. Some may take this as a weakness; however, like the proverb says dwen hwe kwan (let your thinking light your path (or let thinking lead you)). 
About the author: John Dramani Mahama is a writer, historian, journalist, communication expert, former Member of Parliament, Minister of Communications, and Vice President. 

John Dramani Mahama is currently the sixth President of the Fourth Republic of the Republic of Ghana. He first assumed the office after the untimely demise of the then President John Evans Atta-Mills, on July 24, 2012. He was elected President in the December 2012 elections and was sworn into office on January 7, 2013 for a four-year term.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Database of Banned African Books

On October 6, 2012 I began collecting information of banned African books. I wanted to create this database and share with readers. It's always fun going through list of books that were at a point in time banned and the reason why it was banned. Sometimes words as innocuous as 'love' could get a book banned, at other times it's the expression of love across race.

The data shows that in Africa there are three major reasons why books are banned and these are geographically distributed. In Apartheid South-Africa, any book that showed that blacks were humans and have emotions were banned. Thus, books that touches on the negative effects of racial discrimination were banned. Most of Nadine Gordimer's books were banned for this very reason. In Africa's Arab States - Algeria, Sudan, etc - books are banned for being sexually explicit and or if they derogatorily, or are seen to be, in its treatment of religion. In other parts of Africa like Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, political themes get books banned. Here, one of the most affected writer is Ngugi wa Thiong'o of Kenya. However, these reasons overlap and are not as distinct as have been presented here.

Studying the trend of banned books and the reason for which they were banned is a means of measuring civil progress and the extent to which our tolerance level has developed. It means that such civil liberties, as the freedom of speech, are have gradually become entrenched. This is an indicator we should not lose sight of.

Click here for the Database of Banned African Books. You can also provide other banned African books not already on the list. The form for this is available here.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

DISCUSSION: How do You Select Your Book?

Readers read. It is that simple. Yet, it is more difficult than that. With the tons of books published every day it is a (positive) nightmare entering a bookshop and buying a book. In fact, it can take hours to choose between titles and if the budget for books is tight, allowing one to purchase only two or three books, then the method, procedure, decision-making process, of choosing a book becomes even more imperative.

This problem has exacerbated with the introduction of self-publishing platforms. Today, anyone anywhere can publish a book without going through those large monolithic publishing companies. The appearance of self-published books has multiplied the books one can choose from, even within a genre. Another platform that has expanded the population of books is the introduction of e-books and e-readers. What the twenty-first century has done is to revolutionise book publication and reading; if the twentieth century is the Green Revolution, then the twenty-first century is the Book Revolution.

Inundated with billions of titles, how do you, as an avid reader, select the titles of books you read? Do you make your selection based on popular titles, new titles, genre-specific titles, book-bloggers' recommendations, or is your selection of your books ad-hoc? 

Personally, I select my pre-2000 books from titles that have remained relevant since publication. Here I use some of the top-100 lists, especially those by readers instead of the industry. I also choose books (including those published after 2000) whose popularity has been advanced by readers. However, for fiction all my readings have to necessarily be literary fiction, though I veer off once in a while into other genres. But once in a while, I try to select titles randomly.

For non-fiction, I want books that is contributing something to knowledge, that is if they are not memoirs or autobiographies. I rate highly those that challenge popular opinions.

What about you?

Thursday, May 02, 2013

238. The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol

Unlike novels, or even novellas, plays focus on a micro-theme or subject matter and treat it in a way as to make the observer (or reader) think and to effect a change, possibly. Again, unlike novels and novellas which are always originally meant to be read (but which have recently been adapted to the screens), plays are written for the stage and therefore their message is taken in as and when they unfold and the curtains furl and must therefore be short and precise and employing different theatrical devices grab the attention of listeners and deliver their messages. Thus, a play must dramatise events. And Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector (1836; translated and adapted by D. J. Campbell) meets these features excellently.

The Government Inspector is a satirical and comic representation of corruption in the public service of Tsarist Russia with cartoonish characters. Officials in a town, headed by a Mayor, receive information of the visit of a Government Inspector travelling incognito from Saint Petersburg, the seat of government, into their town, perhaps as monitoring exercises. This was the period where any minor offence or infringement could lead its perpetrator to Siberia. Located far away from Petersburg, this undercover visit comes as a surprise to the town's officials - the Charity Commissioner, the Postmaster, the Mayor, the Judge, and the School Superintendent; also because the town had almost never been officially visited by any such high-ranking official in a long while, things had been led to neglect and rot. When  two friends, Bob and Dob, came to inform the gathered officials in the Mayor's room that the Petersburg official they are expecting had arrived and staying at an inn (where he eats and sleeps without payment), the officials sought to visit him and, if possible, bribe him out of any negative report he might have prepared for the authorities. But each official also had a personal egoistic ambition to advance.

What was clear, as events unfold and the officials strategise on how to keep the Government Inspector in the dark about the true state of affairs, was that the town was in a dilapidated state; nothing seemed to work in the town. Corruption had become endemic and the Mayor held absolute power and did whatever he wanted. He robbed the traders of their wares, physically abused them; the streets were dirty and most of the buildings were crumbling. Yet, it was not as if these officials did not know what they were supposed to do. For to cover their actions and inactions, they sought to literally whitewash reality. Thus, what is right is psychologically ingrained in man. It is known by default. And therefore any departure from it is a personal decision or choice. The parallelism with current events show that corruption is a human condition and is therefore not specific to a country or continent. On the other hand, it also shows clearly the importance of leadership. The Mayor, being the head of the town, was the most corrupt official. He condoned and, in most cases, showed the people he contracted for government business the means to cheat the system; consequently, everybody became corrupt. 

But Hlestakov (or Ivan Alexandrovitch) was not an Inspector; he was a junior rank official passing through the town from Petersburg to his father's farm with his servant, Yosif. He was not paying for food not because he was a government officer but because he had run-out of money and genuinely wanted to borrow. Upon meeting the town officials, Hlestakov's first thought was that the inn-keeper had reported him for arrest. But when he began explaining himself stating emphatically that he would go nowhere with the officials, the town's officials who had come with the motive of bribing the Government Inspector took it as a smart move by a Government Inspector to throw them off-guard. They hardened their stance and within a short time had settled the bill (food and accommodation) and had requested that he accompanied them to inspect the public buildings and offices, which they had rehashed up. The Mayor wouldn't listen to Hlestakov's ignorant responses and statements; for him they were all an attempt by an Inspector to remain incognito. When word got round that the Government Inspector had arrived and staying at the Mayor's house, almost the entire townfolks, including the traders, would bribe him to do one thing or another for him. Though Hlestakov would not take the items, the townfolks had come to believe that they had to bribe him for him to save them from the Mayor's clutches of compulsory bribes. Thus, the endemicity of corruption had normalised bribery that they forced it upon Hlestakov. Hlestakov himself became a convert to corruption, having been influenced by the people, to the extent that he forcefully extorted the little amount of money Bob and Dob had on them, when they had not voluntarily offered it to him. This incident indicates the interrelationships and interactions between people and the environment they lived in. Why should a completely innocent man - a man who showed that he was not street-smart unlike his servant - be suddenly transformed to take advantage of his benefactors?

Again, man's belief in his fellow man as the key to his problems when the man himself may harbour doubts about himself, came to the fore. Hlestakov knew he had no such powers the people had attributed to him. He knew he could solve none of the problems he was being told. Yet, the people - traders, officials - had complete faith in him. They believed he was the only one who could solve their problems for them. This is most relevant today when people seemed to depend entirely on priests and supernatural powers, and not themselves, for their problems to be solved.

This series of comedic errors of stupendous proportions would reach its apogee when both the Mayor's wife and his daughter fell in love with and fought over this young twenty-three year old Petersburg official. And the Mayor himself, with smiles and enthusiasm, would engage his daughter to Hlestakov, when the latter - on bended knees and with teary eyes - asked for it. For him, moving to Petersburg was a dream come true. What was provincial life when one could dine with royalty? This clearly symbolises man quest and affinity for power. Most people would do everything to associate with power, no matter the source. But definitely, this becomes absurd when mother and daughter fights over a man young enough to be her daughter.

However, all these would come crushing into smithereens when a gendarme announced to a gathering of officials and townfolks, who had come to congratulate the Mayor upon the engagement of his daughter to the Inspector, that the Inspector-General appointed by Imperial decree had arrived from St. Petersburg. Prior to this ominous declaration, the Postmaster, who read every letter that passed through him, was informing the officials of Hlestakov's letter to his friend in Petersburg narrating his windfall increase in fortune in the town.

The Government Inspector may be a funny, even cartoonish, representation of provincial life in the nineteenth century, but stripped of all the comedy, of all the theatrical innuendos, it is the reality of many a country today. Today, politics and governance have become the fastest routes to economic and financial security. It is no longer a call to duty. In developing countries, the corruption is all clear to see. In developed countries, it is subtle and manifests itself when politicians leave office and become lobbyists for private companies. This is after the companies have sponsored their campaigns and they in turn have passed several policies that profited their companies. Like the provincial officials, it is not as if these politicians do not know what is right. They do. The question is whether they have the moral suasion to do what they know is right.
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