Saturday, August 31, 2013

August in Review, Projections for September

Reading has become a part of me, through dedication and perseverance. I am not one of those whose home overflowed with books. There was none, almost. Not that my parents were illiterates. They weren't. My mother retired as a Principal Nursing Officer. No problem. But that was the days nurses were almost paid in coins and so there were more important things to think about than filling-up a bookshelf with fiction. First, there was school, good but affordable school, to consider. If you thought my father who described himself as a farmer, with no commercial farm, was an illiterate you should see his signature; his handwriting is a thing to envy, the best in the family. He thought us how to read. My reading book - the school-text - was defaced and plastered all over such that even with a microscope you cannot identify the colour nor the text on the cover. If books could cry, that 'Here is Aku' book could have wept gallons.

Hang on, I am not reviewing my family. I am reviewing my reading for the month. Though I do say that reading has become a part of me, July and August haven't been faithful months. I have struggled through them. They nearly ditched me like that girl who ditched me after ten years of dating. Yes, it's true. I intend to be unconventional in this post. Don't worry, I'm not drunk. August saw me read, almost, six books. Though this might seem impressive, it is not. As they say, the devil is in the details. 

First, I am just over a third through the sixth book, which happens to be the most voluminous of the six; besides I lost one of the books on the plane from Entebbe to Nairobi. I was half-way through that book but have counted it as read. So there it is! I have cheated.

The failure wasn't only on the numbers read but also on the pages read. Most of the books read were less than the average book size (354 pages) I've read this year. To repeat, the biggest I've read this month, which I am only a third through is 374 pages and this is a large-font cum illustration ridden - at the beginning of every chapter - copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. On the average I read 46 pages a day. Impressive? Try deducting the lost and incompletely read books. All the same, the following are the books read for the month:
  • A Heart's Quest by Elikplim Akorli [198 p.] This is a collection of poems. I interviewed the author on the poems. 
  • The Spider King's Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo [288 p.] Anyone who has read this know how fast-paced it is and the socioeconomic dimensions it covers. It's both funny and sad. Chibundu's descriptions of that duality that has come to define our economic situation is all too palpable. A great first book. This is a book you could read in one sitting and feel satisfied.
  • Farad by Emmanuel Iduma [207 p.] This is the book I lost on the plane. I couldn't stop blaming myself. You know that feeling you get when you know something will happen and it happens? Yes, that's the feeling I got when I lost this book. I put the book in the front-seat pocket just when we were approaching JKIA and it crossed my mind that I might forget it. Lo and behold I did. However, the few stories I read in this book had promise. One of the stories, first read in the African Roar 2011 Anthology as Out of Memory, was expanded in this one. Emmanuel's writing is like peeling onions, every sentence reveals something different. He sometimes repeats words, sentences, but they go ahead to reveal something, like Faulkner did in Absalom Absalom; however, they did distract at times. Yet, one cannot but appreciate the author's keen sense of observation.
  • Taboo by Mawuli Adzei [248 p.] Again, like Chibundu's book, don't be fooled by the page numbers. The fonts are sparse and make for a fast-read. What a book! What more can I say? This book mixes the clash of religions with the serial killing of women [remember the serial killing of women that gripped the country in 1999 prior to elections? Yes, that very one]. The recipe of such ingredients is this page-turner of a book, written in codes - literally, that would keep you guessing and missing till the last line. Yes, it is literary! And yes, it has detective elements. And yes, it involves Catholic Priests. If you're not enticed to read this book after these snippets of information, then you're either not alive or you're dead, which is the same thing.
  • Kongi's Harvest by Wole Soyinka [96 p.] This is a play about the struggle of power between a traditional authority and a democratically elected leader. The question is who wields the most power? Are they different? Could both be trusted? Kongi wants to be the first person to eat the first yams and he wants Danlola to be the one to present the yams to him. In so doing Danlola, the traditional head, would have relinquished power absolutely to Kongi, the president. Kongi is also thinking of his Five-Year Development Plan, which emphasises harmony. How does he achieve harmony whilst ensuring that the unyielding Danlola succumb to his quest?
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain [374 p.] If you thought Amos Tutuola wrote English in 'some way', read this book. I don't think the year it was published, 1884, had anything to do with the way it was written. However, once you familiarise yourself with its 'irregular' grammar, you're through. What more can I say about a book I am currently reading but pretending to have already read?
On the literary events front, Nii Ayikwei Parkes was the reader for the month at the Ghana Voices Series organised by the Writers Project of Ghana in partnership with the Goethe Institute. He read from his very old, recently old, and upcoming works. As usual there was the question and answer session.

Next month [September] we will host the Nigerian writer Sefi Atta, author of Everything Good will Come, News from Home among others. It will help if you mark the last Wednesday of September on your calendars. The time remains 7 pm.

September: I really don't have that many unread books and I have no intention of reading those unread ones on my shelf, save one or two of them. Thus, September is also going to be a fascinating one.

However, I am sure to read A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, a selection of the Writers Project of Ghana's Book and Discussion Club for the month of September. If you're interested, you can follow us on @WritersPG and use the hashtag #wpghbookclub to follow our twitter discussion, which is held on the last Thursday [usually] of every month before the actual 'in-person' discussion at Legon.

I will also read a, as yet untitled, collection of poems. Hopefully, I will share it with you.

These are my two likely readings. However, if my enthusiasm picks up then I will add either one of Ayn Rand's tomes: Atlas Shrugged or Fountainhead

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize

About the Prize
Commonwealth Writers has re-focused its prizes to concentrate only on the Short Story. It will no longer offer the Commonwealth Book Prize.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is part of Commonwealth Writers the cultural initiative from the Commonwealth Foundation. Commonwealth Writers develops the craft of individual writers and builds communities of emerging voices which can influence the decision-making processes affecting their lives. The Prize aims to identify talented writers who will go on to inspire their local communities.

There will be five winners, one from each region. One regional winner will be selected as the overall winner. The overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize will receive £5,000 and the remaining four regional winners £2,500. If the winning short story is a translation into English, the translator will receive additional prize money:  £2,000 for the overall winning story and £1,000 for a regional winning story.

The final selection will be judged by an international judging panel; experienced readers will assist the named judges in selecting the long lists. The 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize will be chaired by Ellah Allfrey, Deputy Chair of the Council of the Caine Prize and previously Deputy Editor of Granta and Senior Editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House.

  • Entrants must be citizens of a Commonwealth country. The Commonwealth Foundation will request verification of citizenship before winners are selected. Writers from non-Commonwealth countries (including the Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe) are not eligible.
  • For regional purposes, entries will be judged by country of citizenship. Where the writer has dual citizenship, the entry will be judged in the region where the writer is permanently resident.
  • Entrants must be aged 18 years or over. 
  • There is no requirement for the writer to have current residence in a Commonwealth country, providing she/he is a citizen of a Commonwealth country.
  • All entries will be accepted at the discretion of the Commonwealth Foundation which will exercise its judgement, in consultation with the prize chair as necessary, in ruling on questions of eligibility. The ruling of the chair on questions of eligibility is final, and no further correspondence will be entered into.
Entry rules
  • Entries must be made by the writer
  • Entries will only be accepted via the online entry form at Commonwealth Writers Prize.
  • The deadline for receipt of entries is 30 November 2013 (12 noon GMT).
  • Only one entry per writer may be submitted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
  • The story must be the entrant’s own work. 
  • The story must be original and should not have been previously published anywhere in full or in part. Published work is taken to mean published in any printed, publicly accessible form, e.g. anthology, magazine, newspaper. It is also taken to mean published online, with the exception of personal blogs and personal websites.
  • Entries previously submitted to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize are not eligible.
  • All entries must be in English. Translations of short stories written in languages other than English are eligible if submitted by the writer (not the translator) and provided the translator is a citizen of a Commonwealth country. Details of the translator must be stated on the entry.  If successful a proportion of the prize money will be awarded to the translator.
  • Entries must be 2,000 words minimum, 5,000 words maximum.
  • Entries should be uploaded in a PDF document.  Please save your document as a PDF and use the title of the story as the file name. Please note the story must not be saved as ‘Commonwealth Story’, ‘Short Story’ or any other generic title.  If it is not possible to save the entry as a PDF document, it may be uploaded as a Microsoft Word document, with the file name in the same format as above. The first page should include the name of the story and the number of words (and details of the translator if it is a story written in a language other than English).
  • The author’s details should be included in the entry form. They must not be given anywhere on the uploaded document. All entries are judged anonymously.
  • All entries should be submitted in Arial 12 point font and double line spacing.
  • There are no restrictions on setting, genre or theme.
  • The story should be adult fiction and must not have been written for children alone.
  • Entrants agree as a condition of entry that the prize organisers may publicise the fact that a story has been entered or shortlisted for the Prize.
  • Worldwide copyright of each story remains with the writer. The Commonwealth Foundation will have the unrestricted right to publish the winning stories (the overall winning story and the four regional winning stories) in an anthology and for promotional purposes.
  • The overall and regional winners will be expected to take part in publicity activities including social media where possible.
  • The overall and regional winners will be expected to undertake a mutually acceptable programme of regional outreach activities to develop and promote Commonwealth Writers.
Prize regions
  • Africa: Botswana, Cameroon, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia. Overseas Territories: St Helena, Tristan Da Cunha, Ascension Island.
  • Asia: Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka.
  • Canada and Europe: Canada, Cyprus, Malta, United Kingdom. Overseas Territories: Gibraltar, Falkland Islands.
  • Caribbean : Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago. Overseas Territories: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands.
  • Pacific: Australia, Fiji Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu. Overseas Territory: Pitcairn.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Readers' Top Ten - Kinna Reads

Last week I introduced a new series I wanted to run on ImageNations called Readers' Top Ten. I said one of its aims was to introduce readers to the rich literature Africa has to offer. The series begins today with Kinna Reads. 

About Kinna: Kinna is a book blogger at Kinna Reads among many other things. On her blog Kinna says
I grew up in literary, bookish household. I love books, reading, nurturing and developing my appreciation for the art form. I read mostly fiction, both contemporary and classic. I really enjoy world literature. I'm partial to women writers and their works, especially African women writers.
Below is Kinna's Top Ten. Note that I have linked the titles and authors to posts within ImageNations, where available. My views and Kinna's might not be the same and so beware when reading them.
Where do I begin? So first, I consider this blog’s owner, Nana Fredua, a friend.  He is reader kin. And the best kind of reader kin; he reads and loves African literature.

But really, what kind of brother-reader asks a sister to compile her top ten African books?  Eh, Nana?  Don’t get me wrong; I love lists.  I have reading lists on my blog.  But I shy away from making lists of favorite books.  The closest I came to such was a post on the Best Five of Jose Saramago’s novels.  That was easy because I was confined to just Saramago’s novels. And even then I couldn't restrict myself to five books and managed to list seven.  The “what’s your favorite book, what’s your favorite author?’ line of questions temporarily render readers speechless.  And Nana knows this. This is not reader kinship. But I’m a good sister and Nana Fredua will be obliged.

The List
My rules (because Nana must not be obeyed):  one book per author but can suggest up to 2 books/author if I cannot decide.  The two books count as one entry. And I can exceed ten books if the pain of culling is unbearable.

I allowed myself to be aggressively guided by the following paragraph in Nana’s introduction of Readers’ Top Ten:

“The aim of this project is to introduce to readers of ImageNations the rich literature the continent has to offer.  It is meant to move beyond the 'one-novel African literature', which seems to have come to define literature in Africa. It is also to promote African literature to both Western audience and Africans who hardly read from the continent or are unsure of where to start.”

[In alphabetical order by author.  This is not a ranked list]

I should have taken Achebe off this list if indeed I was “aggressively guided “by Nana’s paragraph above.  Because who doesn't know of Achebe nor cannot find out by just googling African Literature.  I don’t ride for that “one novel African Literature”, Things Fall Apart. I am solidly in #TeamArrowOfGod. Achebe’s lead characters are stubborn people and I prefer stubborn with wise in Ezeulu even if we lose the battle between change and continuity!

Anowa by Ama Ata Aidoo
I debated whether to include a book by this author. Would it be nepotism, Nana?  Drama is African literature’s finest tradition. Aidoo’s treatment of slavery, love, infertility and community is powerful.  A haunting tragedy.

Ramatoulaye gets under my skin. Every time I read this novel, I want to yell and tell her that 25 years is enough, that he left you, that keeping the door open all those years was just wrong… But Ramatoulaye very calmly, and with such eloquence, explains her side of the story. I’m never persuaded but I find myself thinking ‘I hear you, I hear you’.  She should have been a lawyer. I’m also a sucker for well-written epistolary novels.

I don’t know but sometimes I think there are right moments when a book and its reader meet.  I just can’t explain it.  I met Nervous Conditions towards the waning years of my family’s exile in Zimbabwe and I will forever be grateful for Dangarembga’s exploration of class, race and gender.

Close Sesame/Maps by Nuruddin Farah
Farah is one of a handful of African male writers who make an effort to write well-conceived women characters.   It’s hard to pick just one of his books.  He tends to group his novel in trilogies of theme.  Close Sesame, of the Variations on the Theme of An African Dictatorship trilogy, centers on Deeriye, a gentle and dignified patriarch. I’m not one for patriarchal figures but this old man is so beautifully and hauntingly rendered. He’s one of the most memorable characters in all of literature.  Maps, from the Blood in the Sun Trilogy, is about identity - personal, familial and national.  The central character is the orphan Askar, another unforgettable character.  In fact, Farah’s novels are driven by his characters.  He’s said he means to write his people and certainly the people of Somalia are well-represented and loved in Farah’s work.

Bessie Head leaves me speechless and tongue-tied.  I cannot say that I enjoyed A Question of Power because it is so darn painful. And one cannot liberate Bessie Head from the pain.  Still, A Question of Power is an essential book for me, as is all of Head’s novels.

Palace Walk/Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
Here’s the thing: it doesn't really matter which of Mahfouz’s gems I put here, and there are plenty. Miramar, Harafish, Children of the Alley, The Beggar and numerous other books are all fantastic.  He opened my eyes and heart to Egyptian literature and then he gave me the world. Read him, please.

The Cry of Winnie Mandela by Njabulo Ndebele
This book floors me every time I read it.  Part fiction, non-fiction, theory, fantasy, experimental, it situates post-apartheid South African nationalist and identity issues within the realm of women’s lives.  Simply brilliant and for me, absolutely essential.

Would it help if I told you that Distant View of a Minaret is one of Achebe’s favorite books?  Because I wonder how it is that this masterpiece is often overlooked by readers South of the Sahara. A collection of short stories centred mainly on the lives of Egyptian women, it’s groundbreaking and utterly exquisite.

A man returns home to Sudan after a sojourn in England. The best book on post-coloniality ever.  If you’re inclined to yawn at the term post-colonial, then read this book for its gorgeous prose, its searing honesty and its lyricism.  It is considered one of the finest novels of Arabic literature.  We will, forever, keep coming back to this masterpiece.

God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembene
I know it is not a competition between film lovers and readers.  But I want to remind y’all that Sembene Ousmane was also a writer of tremendous significance. So give those reels a break and crack open one of his novels. God’s Bits of Wood is a novel about the proletariat.

I think sometimes folks forget or don’t even know what gives Soyinka all that stature.  It’s not his defiance of African leaders, not his eloquently, perfectly pitched missives directed at those who betray African people. It is his plays, his art, his incredible imagination – his sheer genius. Inspired by actual events, Death of the King’s Horseman is vintage Soyinka and rejects simplistic explanations.  Since we privilege tragedy over comedy, this particular Soyinka play is a must read.  If only death was always this beautiful and glorious!

Ngugi himself may not know this and I’m going to tell him:  all his other novels were in preparation for Wizard of the Crow.  Yes, even MatigariWizard is the best approximation of Africa’s oral tradition rendered in the written form.  Wildly entertaining, funny, epic etc. etc., Wizard is a world unto itself.

Butterfly Burning/The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera
It’s hard to talk about Vera because I always need to get over the shock of her early death and how much of her words died with her.  The thing with Vera is she never lets us off easy. But she cushions the brutality with poetic prose and a sensuality that is life-affirming.  Both books explore Zimbabwe’s difficult past.  She does wonders with imagery.

Okay, Nana.  It’s been brutal culling this list and leaving out books like Purple Hibiscus [Chimamanda Adichie], Search Sweet Country [Kojo Laing], Woman at Point Zero [Nawal El Saadawi], We Killed Mangy Dog [Luis Bernardo Honwana], The Memory of Love [Aminatta Forna], etc etc.  But I enjoyed the exercise and of course, I realize again that I need to read more African Literature.  I need a soothing cup of tea now.

Friday, August 23, 2013

254. A Review Interview of 'A Heart's Quest by Elikplim Akorli'

This interview is meant to replace the usual review I do for books I have read. There are several reasons for this but the chief one is that I failed to make notes when I read. This will not be a routine.

How do you introduce yourself to people, especially the literary side of you?
Hmmm, basically I'm simple and down to earth. With literary side of me, I would say I was not trained to write. Writing came to me when nothing else would. I found writing young. It wasn't my first love though; sketching was though I have not developed it as much as I would have loved to. When I write, I write to set myself free irrespective of whatever someone may think or feel. That was the way writing started for me. The more I wrote and experienced life, the more I discovered there were other things to talk about apart from using writing as a personal tool. I write articles and essays sometimes apart from poetry which I consider my usual domain. I have tried short stories but not yet completed any.

Can you tell us the full meaning of your name?
My name “Elikplim” means”God is with me”.  “Akorli” is my grandfathers given to the fourth male in the family line. In Japanese, “Kami Sama”

Your first degree is in African Studies, how would you say this has influence your writing?
Yes in a way. Everything else that I have experienced has influenced my writing because it would serve as a reservoir of knowledge to call upon anytime the need arises. African Studies was my major but I read Classics and Philosophy and History too. Classics and Philosophy has been a great influence, the two command great passion if one understands the perspective which aids and guides them. African Studies made me embrace myself as an African and would remain African no matter what. It granted me acceptance of who I really am as a person and that means a lot to me.

Your first book, which was launched just some weeks ago, was titled A Heart’s Quest. What’s the importance of this title and how does it reflect in the content? How did you settle on the title?
A Heart’s Quest, is a beautiful piece of book I would say. If one has the opportunity of reading all the poems in the book, it would be of easy realization that the style employed in the writing is very unusual ,but I believe it allows one to delve into possibilities. The poems in the book are experiences of thought and spirit and a result serves as a challenge to the youth of Ghana and the world at large. Africa is my first concern though. I believe if the youth reconsider thoughts and possibilities of potential hidden in us, we would initiate a movement that would inspire the great awakening of Africa as continent to contribute her quota on the world stage and serve as an inspiration for perspective for the planetary home. In this regard, the poems in the book are ideas, hopes of the ideal that things can be better than they are now for we have the potential, so therefore a heart on a quest. In my own knowing, the heart is stronger than the mind, since it aids and guides its use. The first impulse of the body is initiated by the heart.

Reading your poems, I saw you focused more on love – sexual, filial and friendly. Why this major theme?
Man is a sexual being and I believe we express that sexuality variedly. Meanwhile, sexuality is a thing we are only opening up to. It needs to be discussed and processed, possibly guided. But that in itself is subjective. Depending on a person’s experience and understanding of it, one acts accordingly. The limit and freedom of humanity is an expression of a sex. Creativity like a pool if experienced, one would qualify its expression as that of sexuality. Like the experience of orgasm, one’s mind is flooded when in a creative mood. I think that is sacred or saintly if compared to the wholesome experience of love; a thing to behold.

What exactly will you say you were carrying across in your anthology? In addition to the love, there were several threads, even within a poem. Sometimes a poem will take off and branch into several directions. Were these intentional?
Well, I would call that the psychology that holds the poems and that should be best left to the readers of the poems. An attempt to disclose that wouldn’t serve right on a platter of discovery such as poetry. There were instances I referred to the Ghanaian experience and the condition that constructs it in some poems, that too is a thread/theme. Whether these were intentional, I would say yes, for without intent, nothing can be done.

There was a lot of conversation and repetition of words and a lot of laughter (hahahaha) in the piece, is there anything precisely you were trying to achieve with this?
Hahahaa as laughter is the expression of sarcasm/humour in some of the poems. One needs laughter in order to carry some messages across. It sets apart everything else so one would take a repetitive look at the piece again.

There were Japanese translations of some of your poems. How wide has your anthology been received?
I believe as a people, we must explore and not set boundaries. The attempt of the Japanese translation is to plainly declare my love for Japan, the culture and the people. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity of meeting some very beautiful Japanese, Maki Kawamoto, Tayuta Masa and Hirono Uta. Apart from experiencing Japan in literature and movies, these individuals gave me a better eye into Japan as a country. It is of my believe that Japan would embrace this book considering the dare and versatility with which Japanese express their ideas and open up more to doing business with Africa as a continent and in the process contribute positively all things being equal.

How difficult was it to get the work published?
Hahahahaaaa. It was such a deal to publish this work. There were people I encountered who openly opposed the ideas in the book and some others accepted it and supported beyond measure. There were some who got negative for the sake of being negative only. That is how blunt people can be, but it does not matter to me. I self published this work because I believe this needs to be shared in order to inspire and give perspective. Possibilities are endless if only we decide to support each other by being more profound in the mind. The frontiers must be pushed and this is my attempt at contributing to that push. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Readers' Top Ten

Readers' Top Ten is a series that will feature the top 10 African books - written by Africans - as selected by identified readers. Each participating reader will pick his or her top 10 favourite African books and briefly discuss the books - why he or she like it, what it means to him or her (if any) etc. The reader will make his or her own decision considering the definition of an African. At ImageNations it includes citizenship of an African country, naturalisation, or dual citizenship. Also if an author has African ancestry and do identify himself or herself to the continent, she or he is considered an African.

The other condition is that the book should have a literary merit, even if it is non-fiction. No other imposition is made and this literary merit will be determined by the selector and not ImageNations.

The aim of this project is to introduce to readers of ImageNations the rich literature the continent has to offer.  It is meant to move beyond the 'one-novel African literature', which seems to have come to define literature in Africa. It is also to promote African literature to both Western audience and Africans who hardly read from the continent or are unsure of where to start.

Readers' Top Ten will be a weekly publication on ImageNations - possibly on every Monday but not necessary so. A participant need not necessarily be African. If you are interested in sharing your Top 10 African books, contact me.

Friday, August 16, 2013

NLNG Longlist

The Advisory Board of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas, NLNG, sponsor of the Nigeria Prize Literature, on Monday announced a shortlist of 11 books out of 201 books submitted for the 2013 edition of the prize. This year, the biggest literary prize on the continent, will focus on poetry. The list was arrived after after months of intensive scrutiny by a panel of judges led by renowned poet and literary critic Prof. Romanus Egudu of Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. The shortlisted books are:

  1. Letter Home and Biafran Nights by Akeh Afam
  2. Symphony of Becoming by Eke Iquo
  3. Birthcry by Nwakanma Obi
  4. Wild Letters by Ogochukwu Promise
  5. Globetrotter and Hitler's Children by Ede Amatoritsero
  6. Marsh Boy and Other Poems by Egbewo G'ebinyo
  7. Length of Eyes by Gomba Obari
  8. The Sahara Testaments by Ipadeola Tade
  9. Seven Stations up the Stairwel by Launko Kinba (pen name for Femi Osofisan)
  10. Through the Window of a Sandcastle by Nnadi Amu
  11. Sea of My Mind by Raji Remi
The winner of the US$ 100,000 cash prize will be announced in October from a final shortlist of three. The Nigeria Prize for Literature rotates yearly amongst four literary genres: prose fiction, poetry, drama and children's literature. Last year it was won by Chika Unigwe for On Black Sisters' Street (prose fiction). Source

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

253. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy*

"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" are the famous opening words of the tragic love story Anna Karenina (FP: 1877; 813) by Leo Tolstoy. This is perhaps the most famous first line one would read. Anna Karenina is a novel of many dimensions with ebbs and troughs. Set in Russia around the time of the liberation of the serfs, the novel deals with society: the people, the laws and the government. The main story revolves around Anna Karenina, the eponymous character of the novel. 

Anna Karenina had returned from Moscow, where she had been to solve a problem between her brother, Oblonsky, and her wife, Dolly [Darya], after the former had cheated on the latter with his children's English governess and the marriage seemed destined for disaster. Initially, one would have thought that the story revolves around the Oblonsky family. However, it quickly settles on the Karenins. In Moscow Anna had met the playboy Vronsky, who had been considered and silently approved as the potential husband of Kitty [Katherine, Dolly's younger sister]. The two almost fell in love with each other and even though Anna took it lightly, initially, the symptoms of what would end tragically began to show.
The Pretentiousness of the Aristocrats: On Anna's part, things started looking bad and weird. It began with the ears of her husband, which she thought had grown larger or so, when she first noticed him at the train station where he had come to meet her upon her return to Petersburg. This was followed by her sudden disinterest in her husband's circle of friends; the very circle that launched Karenin's - the husband's - career and which she had previously revelled in. Anna rejected her moral society and immersed herself in the societies and circles where there was a higher probability of coming into contact with Vronsky. Thus, it was clear from the beginning that Anna knew, at least sub-consciously - even if she would deny it openly - what she was doing. That soon, a relationship would develop and something untoward would happen. And it did.

One major theme in this story is the pretentious lives the aristocrats lived. Their preference to keep up appearances to please society: the fear of living their lives in full and fully expressing their emotions; of having to do everything behind the curtains; of bottling up emotions, hurts, failures which could have been solved with just an vocal expression or their outward expressions. The hollowness of the made-up life of the aristocrats came through in this narrative. On the other hand, the Peasants lived a fulfilling life; at least they were themselves though they also had other problems. The need to please society was of such priority to them - the Aristocrats - that when Karenin suspected her wife's unnatural relationship with Vronsky, his problem was how society would take it. Thus, Karenin's problem concerning her wife's relationship with Vronsky was society's problem. So that instead of discussing the issue with her, ab initio, he was concerned more of that society's rule (the rule of the Aristocrats) that made any feeling of jealousy towards one's wife a degradation on the part of the husband. And so to avoid such degradation he refused to talk about it. The epitome of this classic pretentiousness was when Karenin completely feigned any knowledge or suspicion of Anna's adulterous behaviour and even when Anna blurted it out to him, Karenin was prepared to keep up appearances until a solution found. 

Marriage and Divorce: This pretence, that seemed to up Karenin's virtuousness because of his willingness to forgive, and actually forgiving, Anna, created an intense hatred in Anna towards her husband. Though this hatred developed only after meeting Vronsky, it was clear that the relationship was bereft of love, at least not the kind that Anna sought. It could possibly also be an excuse to justify her adulterous behaviour; however, what was clear was that Karenin, especially, was trapped into marriage with Anna by her aunt. There was no natural development of love between the two and they just found themselves married. This situation spoke to the type of societal mores that existed at the time with regards to marriage and divorce. The two were both living for society and not for themselves. However, whereas Karenin was trapped and eternally so by society and by religion, Anna sought freedom and rescue. But there would be no such thing when everybody was living such a life. Karenin exuded no emotions, as required by a man of his status, and was a hypocrite; however, his was the hypocrisy of the aristocrats which was unconscious to the people living it.

Thus, Tolstoy through the marriage of Anna and Karenin addressed the problems that pertained to that particular institution and the process leading to it. This included parents marrying their young daughters away without recourse to love but to wealth and status. This almost happened to Kitty who was encouraged by her mother to marry Vronsky and not Levin, an aristocrat who had chosen to live in the countryside. Another aspect of marriage that Tolstoy discussed was divorce and how complex it was at the time to obtain one because of the religious view of marriage as a holy union between a man and a woman.

As a punishment to herself, Anna initially did not request to be divorced, and even refused it when Karenin, in the early period, had offered it. However, this was subsequently refused by the Karenin when Anna requested, based on his renewed belief in the role he ought to play in Anna's life. And since it was the offended person who could seek divorce, Anna was trapped in her relationship with Vronsky. It also meant that, in that illegal union, whatever issue that came forth, such as the daughter she had with Vronsky, belonged to Karenin. However, Karenin was mocked, initially, for not divorcing his wife; for allowing her to have her way and for acting different from what other people always did. Thus, he who did no wrong other than attempting to forgive her wife was himself crucified.

Gender Discrimination: Though this story is about love and unlove, adultery on both sides of the gender equation (Anna cheating on Karenin with Vronsky, Anna's brother Oblonsky cheating on her wife Dolly (Darya) with his children's governess), it is also about the unequal treatment of the genders for similar offences. A cheating wife was more certain to be shunned both by her peers and society at large than a cheating husband. This was clear in the lives of Anna and Oblonsky. Though society barred Anna from coming out, from associating with people because of her status as a fallen undivorced woman living with a man she was not married to, this same society allowed Vronsky entry and participation. Sometimes even Vronsky himself prevented Anna from going out, citing society's perception and reception of her.

However, Anna's decision - leaving her husband to live with a man she loved - though repulsive to society at large, resonated with some women like Dolly whose husband had cheated on her and who sometimes doubted or questioned her love for him. Thus, in a sense Anna was a revolutionary; the leading figure in women empowerment of the time. To the extent that she took total control of herself, including decisions as touchy as childbirth, is testament to her resolve.

Consequently, the first part of the book where Anna was married to Karenin and the relationship was coming to an end could be described as the period of Anna's bondage; whereas the second part where she was travelling in Europe with Vronsky could be described as the period of her freedom or empowerment.

Vanity and Duality: But Anna was enigmatic. She was dual, embodying both evil and love in their extreme and it was in the absolute expression of this duality that led to her tragic end. She loved and hated in equal measure. Her insecurity and her decisions were extreme. She created imaginary problems of Vronsky deserting her; forgot that Vronsky had given up his career and had also nearly died for her sake. For Anna Karenina everything depended on love and if there was love enough nothing else mattered. Consumed by her love for Vronsky she considered everything peripheral to it unnecessary and not worth considering including the their daughter whose status in that murky scheme of things was itself undefined at best.

She had refused to divorce Karenin only because she saw nothing wrong in the relationship with Vronsky even though she knew it would affect her daughter, whom she expressly did not love, and Vronsky who would have no heirs. Her vanity and perhaps the extreme manifestation of her duality of love and hate was when she took that unilateral decision to undergo hysterectomy in order that she would remain young and beautiful to earn Vronsky's love alone without regards to whether he would want children or not. Could this be love in all its forms? Could self-love be absolute? These sides to Anna was unsettling. She was like the desert, nothing could satisfy her, which worried Vronsky because nothing he did was enough. She needed nothing in halves.

Belief and Unbelief: The story is also about blind faith and the effects of religion on the people - as depicted in the life of Karenin, who, because of his belief, would not divorce his wife and let her be free even though she had deserted him; and who would consult with mediums in order to make such decisions. This religious angle was pitched against the free-thinkers like Dmitri and Koznyshev and those betwixt like Levin, who unstable in his thoughts, was later Christianised. The religious beliefs of Karenin and Lydia Ivanovna were the epitome of all beliefs.

Communism and Capitalism: In addition to the story of Anna, there were discussions that dealt with the economic system of the time. This discussion is prevalent in most of the 19th Century Russian literature I have read. And it could be a precursor to the introduction of Communism in the 20th Century in Russia. It is more likely that the shift to Communism as a form of government was predicated on the extreme slavery and oppression of the Peasants - the labourers of the land - who formed the masses by the few capitalists: land owners and merchants. Most of the novels set in this period discuss the gains that could be derived from sharing and the need to fight the oppression of the masses. For instance, Nicholas' views on capitalism were scathing as he proposed Communism to solve these defects:
You know that capitalism oppresses the workers. Our workmen the peasants bear the whole burden of labour, but are so placed that, work as they may, they cannot escape from their degrading condition. All the profits on their labour, by which they might better their condition, give themselves some leisure, and consequently gain some education, all this surplus value is taken away by the capitalists. And our society has so shaped itself that the more the people work the richer the merchants and landowners will become, while the people will remain beasts of burden for ever. And this system must be changed. [86]
These landowners and merchants and those in sinecure political offices were the aristocrats. For instance, Levin to poke fun at Oblonsky and to show how useless the aristocrats had become redefined it as not only people of noble birth with educated parents but people who depended on their own labour and hard work and were not dependent on government grants or others to survive. 

Anna Karenina deals with the absurdities of rigid societal laws and principles at the time and the hollowness of life lived in pretence. It also captures the life of a people at a point in time. Tolstoy masterfully and subtly shifts the reader's allegiance from Karenin to Karenina to Vronsky to Karenina. This is a book that is worth the read even though the beauty is not the same throughout the novel. The story of Anna Karenina proved to be stronger and more interesting than the others. However, it is worth one's time to read this book.
*Version translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude and published by Wordsworth Classics

Monday, August 12, 2013

#Quotes: Quotes from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina*

All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. [1]

Yet, as often happens between men who have chosen different pursuits, each, while in argument justifying the other's activity, despised it in the depth of his heart. [16]

The aim of civilisation is to enable us to get enjoyment out of everything. [35]

Oh, you moralist! But just consider, here are two women: one insists only on her rights, and her rights are your love, which you cannot give her; and the other sacrifices herself and demands nothing. What are you to do? How are you to act? It is a terrible tragedy. [41]

You know that capitalism oppresses the workers. Our workmen the peasants bear the whole burden of labour, but are so placed that, work as they may, they cannot escape from their degrading condition. All the profits on their labour, by which they might better their condition, give themselves some leisure, and consequently gain some education, all this surplus value is taken away by the capitalists. And our society has so shaped itself that the more the people work the richer the merchants and landowners will become, while the people will remain beasts of burden for ever. And this system must be changed. [86]

What you are saying is wrong, and if you are a good man, I beg you to forget it, as I will forget it. [101]

No, joking apart, I believe that to understand love one must first make a mistake and then correct it. [135]

I think ... if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts. [135-6]

By digging into our souls, we often dig up what might better have remained there unnoticed. Your feelings concern your conscience, but it is my duty is to you, to myself, and to God, to point out to you your duties. Our lives are bound together not by men but by God. This bond can only be broken by a crime, and that kind of crime brings its punishment. [144]

Woman, you see, is an object of such a kind that study it as much as you will, it is always quite new. [159]

Some mathematician has said pleasure lies not in discovering truth but in seeking it. [159]

Pretence about anything sometimes deceives teh wisest and shrewdest man, but however cunningly it is hidden, a child of the meanest capacity feels it and is repelled by it. [263]

There are no Communists whatever, But scheming people always have invented and always will invent some harmful and dangerous Party. That's an old trick. [306]

Yes, if you had to carry a load and use your hands at the same time, it would be possible only if the load were strapped on your back: and that is marriage. I found that out when I married. I suddenly had my hands free. But if you drag that load without marriage, your hands are so full that you can do nothing else. [307]

The fact of the matter is, you see, that progress can only be achieved by authority.. [326]

The people are on so low a level both of material and moral development that they are certain to oppose what is good for them. [331]

I shall die and I am very glad that I shall die: I shall find deliverance and deliver you. [355]

He who desires a result accepts the means of obtaining it. [363]

While I was in doubt it was hard, but not so hard as it is now. While I doubted, I had hope; but now there is no hope left and all the same I doubt everything. I doubt everything so much that I hate my son, and sometimes believe he is not my son. I am very unhappy. [387-8]

One may save a person who does not wish to perish; but if a nature is so spoilt and depraved that it regards ruin as salvation, what can one do? [388]

Love them that hate you, but you can't love them whom you hate. [389]

I have heard it said that women love men for their very faults ... but I hate him for his virtues. [420]

He soon felt that the realization of his longing gave him only one grain of the mountain of bliss he had anticipated. That realization showed him the eternal the eternal error men make by imagining that happiness consists in the gratification of their wishes. [462]

For a moment he felt like a man who, receiving a blow from behind, angrily and revengefully turns round to find his assailant and realizes that he has accidentally knocked himself, that there is no one to be angry wtih and that he must endure and try to still the pain. [479]

He said, addressing himself to God, 'If Thou dost exist, heal this man (such things have often happened), and Thou wilt save both him and me!' [496]

It is possible to sit for some hours with one's legs doubled up without changing one's position if one knows there is nothing to prevent one's doing so, but if a man knows that he must sit with his legs doubled up he will get cramp, and his legs will begin to jerk and strain in the direction in which he would like to stretch them. [524]

What is dishonourable is the acquisition by wrong means: by cunning ... such as the profits made by banks - the acquisition of enormous wealth without work, just as in the days of the drink-monopolists, - only the form has changed. [581]

The first glass you drive in like a stake, the second flies like a crake, and after the third they fly like wee little birds. [666-7]

The one thing needful was to have money in the bank, without asking whence it came, so as to be always sure of the wherewithal to get tomorrow's beef. [667]

He wishes to give me proofs that his love of me must not interfere with his freedom. But I don't need proofs; I need love! [694]

There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot accustom himself, especially if he sees that every one around him lives in the same way. [696]

Before any definite step can be taken in a household, there must be either complete division or loving accord between husband and wife. When their relations are indefinite it is impossible for them to make any move. [728]

Respect was invented to fill the empty place where love ought to be! [733]

You see, he who sits down to play against me, wishes to leave me without a shirt, and I treat him the same! So we struggle, and therein lies the pleasure! [738]

Oh heavens! How many times! But, you see, some men find it possible to sit down to cards and yet be able to leave when the time comes for an assignation! Now I can engage in lovemaking, but always so as not to be late for cards in the evening. [139]

[T]he struggle for existence and hatred are the only things that unite people. [751]

And where love ceases, there hate begins [752]

Reason has been given to man to enable him to escape from his troubles. [755]

To free one's brothers from oppression is an aim worth both dying and living for. [769]

In an infinity of time, and in infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble, a bubble organism, separates itself, and that bubble maintains itself awhile and then bursts, and that bubble is - I. [777]

If goodness has a cause, it is no longer goodness if it has a consequence - a reward, it is also not goodness. Therefore goodness is beyond the chain of cause and effect.
*Version translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude and published by Wordsworth Classics.
Read the review here

Friday, August 09, 2013

Additions to the Library

Chibundu (left) at Sytris
As I stated in my review of July's Reading and Literary Activities, I attended a fair number of book readings. One beautiful thing about attending a book reading is that you get to meet the author, ask him or her questions and then finally, and most importantly, you get autographed copies of the books. Autograph copies for readers is the 'thing'. Reading a book whose author you have met adds a different 'vibe' to the reading. I am digressing. I purchased the following two books at a reading I attended at the PAWA (Pan-African Writers Association) House, which was organised by Invisible Borders under their Trans-African Project:
  1. The Spider King's Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo. This book was buzzing all over the book blogging community on the internet. From the blurb: Seventeen-year-old Abike Johnson is the favourite of her wealthy father. She lives in a sprawling mansion in Lagos, protected by armed guards. A world away from Abike's mansion, in the city's slums, lives a hawker trying to support his family by selling ice cream from the side of the road. When Abike buys an ice cream from the hawker one day, they strike up a tentative romance. But as they grow closer, dark revelations from the past threaten their relationship and both must decide where their loyalties lie.
  2. Farad by Emmanuel Iduma. This book was published by a young publishing house in Nigeria, Parresia. Parresia is working to take the Nigerian publishing industry by storm. It is a great adventure by the young men and women behind it. From the blurb: Farad, named for the unit of an electrical charge, is a novel that cuts laser-like through a multilayered society. Touching biographies of ordinary citizens - young academics and ageing psychiatrists, Christian editors and call girls, strange women and music artistes - told in stylish, interrupted narratives, are woven into a detailed mosaic of modern Nigerian. Reminiscent of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, Farad eases to a climax when key characters from individual stories become participants in a conflict at a University Chapel - a conflict in which the nature of power and the strength of love are tested. Farad is an assemblage of of fresh narratives woven around simple questions and open-ended complexities. It is, ultimately, a story of love and essence.
I will be bringing you reviews of these books. However, you could also decide to get copies for your reading pleasure. 

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

NEW PUBLICATION: Brave Music of a Distant Drum by Manu Herbstein

Brave Music from a Distant Drum by Manu Herbstein is a sequel to Ama - a story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. In my review of the first book, I stated that this is a book that needs to be read by all. It is an introduction to an understanding of what really went on during the slave trade. It takes the story away from statistics and figures - this number of people were taken, that number of people died. It shows you the human dimension of that unpardonable activity. It shows you that slaves were not taken out of Africa; rather people were taken out and made slaves. It is a human story with unrestrained treatment. I expect the sequel to follow similar lines. To continue the story and to peel off the wounds. For instance, one would want to know what happened to Ama after the death of Tomba. And will their son be as rebellious as the two of them were? The following are some reviews of the sequel:

[Glenys Bichan, Cambridge High School Library, New Zealand, May 23, 2012Today Ghana is on my heart, I have been there 4 times now and will go again in October. This book is about a slave called Ama, she is old and dying but with an amazing tale to tell, she is blind and cannot write her story, so she tells it to her son. It is a tale of violence, heartache, a story of hope and courage, determination and ultimately love. It is a story of Ghana, of its wonderful people, stolen and taken to a foreign land. How many of my Ghana friends have family in south USA- I often wonder that. What gifts and talents were stolen from one land in violent selfish greed and transported to another place. I went with some of my Ghana friends to a slave castle on the Cape Coast, with us were young men and woman 15-16 years of age. As I stood with them at the 'door of no return" and in silence we gazed - I felt an overpowering sense of filth, that I was in some way connected to British slave trading and that these wonderful kids were the ones my forebears shunted through that door- it was a sickening feeling. Do you know what they did - hugged me! Ama - scream your story!!! 

[Keilin Huang, May 2012There are some stories that touch you and some that change you. This is what Kwame Zumbi discovers after a visit with his blind mother. Initially turned off by her physical condition and what Kwame sees as a sinful lifestyle (she refuses to call him by his Christian name name and she doesn’t attend a Christian church)  he eventually learns of a past that he has long forgotten and indeed that he has chose to forget. Ama has a story to tell, one that “lies within me, kicking like a child in the womb” and she summons her son, Kwame, to write it down as she dictates to him. Kwame is impatient with Ama and finds her “old and blind…unwell and…ugly,” but as her story unfolds, he realizes just how amazing her journey has been. From Ama’s comfortable beginnings in her hometown to her relationship with a Dutch governor that brought her across foreign waters to the hardships she faced while on the English slave ship, The Love of Liberty, Kwame learns not only about his earlier life, but ultimately just how powerful and influential his mother’s story can be.

Brave Music of a Distant Drum is an amazing story that gives a deep, and sometimes difficult, account of the slave trade. It’s not an understatement to say that Herbstein’s tale is a vital part of history and a key to understanding cross-cultural relations today. 

Monday, August 05, 2013

252. God Dies by the Nile by Nawal El Saadawi

God Dies by the Nile* (Zed Books, FP: 1976; 175) by Nawal El Saadawi is a compendium of political, cultural, social, and religious oppression of a people by a demagogue through a supposed ruling class whom he gets to do what he wants. In this book, Nawal El Saadawi, whose subject of interest revolves around [religious] oppression in a patriarchal society, discusses how a people blinded by religion could become delusional in their depravity and even deemed it the will of God.

In this story, set in the village of Kafr El Teen, the Mayor is God, his word is law, and his passions reign supreme. And when this lascivious Mayor set his eyes on the children of an old woman, Zakeya, there was nothing anyone could do but to submit, even if it had to take the Sheikh to turn the words of Allah around to deceive the masses and an unfortunate and helpless woman. Everyone was blinded to the Mayor's deeds and all worked to not only protect him but also praise him to the hilt so that in grovelling before him, their daily bread would be assured. After a girl - Nefissa - in his household got pregnant, delivered and deserted the town and the baby entirely, the Mayor descended on the girl's younger sister. And for a man who felt incomplete and who would do anything to show his invisible superiority to anyone in the village and in his family, there was no settling for a negative responses or giving up.

This book documents the impotence of the people in dealing with this one individual who considered himself the purveyor of their daily bread but who also made their lives horrible and made them do things against their will. He set people up, falsely accused them, had them jailed or killed in the realisation of his needs. And even though the people were unhappy about this glaring abuse, they were crippled and incapacitated by the fear of the repercussions that would ripple through the village should any attempt be made; for he had the capacity to increase taxes, take away farm lands, and even to ostracise recalcitrant offenders. Consequently, no one tried.

There is a lot packed within this novella. However, there are too many characters for this thin book that hardly any character was completely developed. There was a sense of detachment and no emotional affinity towards the characters even though a very despicable and grief-laden story was being told. In addition to this, most of them were extremely wicked. They worked against their own people, turning their heads away from whatever was prevailing, if they were not contributing to it. Even Zakeya's nephew who had come from a war he had described as useless to witness the wickedness being heaved upon his family could do and think of nothing other than marriage. In the end, he was framed up for theft and whisked away without resistance, for being the obstacle between Zeinab and the Mayor. 

Also the men were like automatons, they only did what they were asked to do. For instance, Nefissa's father beat him upon the advice of the village barber - Haj Ismail - who had come to convince him to allow his daughter to work at the Mayor's house; this was after he had hold the Haj Ismail that his daughter was not in agreement with that decision and Haj Ismail had in turn asked him who was the head of the house. This was repeated again with Fatheya's father - again for a similar action: refusal to marry the Mayor.

As a final cap of the 'male-bashing' literature, men were accused for the nude pictures of women on posters and advertising boards in Cairo when Zakeya made the journey to visit the mosque she had been directed to.

In addition, there was a lot of depravity in this story and this emboldened Nawal's relations with her male characters. Mostly, these were threads that could have been trimmed to improve the punch of the story if not for her affinity for the portraying men in such light. There was a man who had a personal sex life with an Ox; another with dead bodies; the Sheikh himself was raped by his uncle when he was young and he in turn married a child; and the Mayor was sexually abusive. The story of the man who slept with dead bodies was superfluous to the story. It just hanged in the story and linked to nothing. Same could be said for Kafrawi's sex life with the Ox. In fact, this bestial encounter was so descriptive that the reader is likely to be deceived that it was in reference to a lady. As if these depravities were not enough, the woman - the Sheikh's young wife - who had adopted Nefissa's daughter was beaten to death with the baby when she stood against a mob - made up entirely of men - who had accused the baby of being the cause of their recent problems; the problems being the social dissonance the Mayor had caused with his actions.

The story was also predictive in a way. Every chapter begins with a confusing description or narrative but it ultimately came down to a man who was doing evil, or a woman who was being abused. There were also some repetitive descriptions and phrases [too close to each other]. For instance, the way the sun set, the way a father beat the daughter and others, were so similar that the reader might wrongly think that he or she was repeating a page already read. For instance:
 His fingers let go of his whiskers, and he gave a sudden gasp like a drowning man when he comes to the surface. [49]
then on the next page 
She gave a sudden gasp of relief like a drowning woman who unexpectedly finds herself a the surface [50]
However, Nawal El Saadawi managed to send her message through, in the midst of these structural deficiencies. One could not help but frown upon such issues as Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage that were forcefully brought to the fore.

Religion played a strong role in this story. For instance the question of who is 'God' in the novel is important for the overall appreciation of the story. First, God could be a metaphor for the Mayor, who took upon himself certain key characteristics of God: infallibility, purveyor of human provisions, the law maker, and incontestability. Thus, his death - which occurred at the stroke of a hoe - is what the title encapsulates. However, the Mayor could be the personification of Islam (or Allah), which the author vituperatively spoke about. Thus, in this interpretation, the abuse of the people will be the direct outcome of Islam in practice. There are several places that this was directly or indirectly suggested. For instance, in his quest to get Zeinab into his household the Mayor and his coterie of friends deceived Zakeya through a Sheikh in a Mosque in Cairo. Here, prayers [a certain number] and recitations [a certain number] were used to deceive Zakeya into believing that she was being healed by Allah and that for it to be complete Allah had requested that she sent her daughter Zeinab to the home of the Mayor. In another situation, when Zakeya was imprisoned for the murder of the Mayor and she realised all that had occurred she suddenly had an epiphanic moment:
But every now and then the men around her could see her mutter, like someone talking to herself. She kept repeating in a low voice, 'I know who it is. Now I know him.' ... She stared into the dark with open eyes but her lips were always tightly closed. But one of the prisoners heard her mutter in a low voice, 'I know who it is.' And the woman asked her curiously, 'who is it my dear?'
And Zakeya answered, 'I know it's Allah, my child.'
'Where is He?' sighed her companion. 'If He were here, we could pray Him to have mercy on women like us.'
'He's over there, my child. I buried him there on the bank of the Nile.' 
This alternative explanation leads to the total repudiation of Allah as the overseer of life and the provider of compassion as shown subtly in the response: 'if He were here, we could pray Him to have mercy on women like us.' There is a sense of disbelief and mistrust in that statement.

Could the current Egyptian crisis therefore be, not necessarily a repudiation of religion, a repudiation of all the numerous Gods (Mayors) who had stifled the people? Could it be a spontaneous outburst of withheld emotions? However, this must be answered as cautiously as possible since Egypt is not a religious state and therefore an extrapolation of Kafr El Teen to Egypt cannot be linearly made. Also note that when Zakeya left her village to Cairo, she was amazed by the unbridled life the people lived to the extent that she became dizzy. 

The book is not Nawal's finest, though I had problems with Searching, her only other book I have read. The problem with Searching was her description of men. Not the prose. In this book it is both. It is important that anyone who intends to read Nawal El Saadawi understands that she is not charitable with her male characters. They are as bad as they could possibly be and most of the time caricatured. This book is therefore cautiously recommended. If not for the buzz that surrounds this book, I would have suggested a skip, but it is important for one to read to come to a personal conclusion.
*A selection of the Book and Discussion Club for the month of July. Follow discussions on the book on twitter by clicking on the #wpghbookclub.
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