Wednesday, April 30, 2014

291. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous book The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (FP: 1892; 302) is one of those books that manage to surprise you regardless of how familiar you have become with their titles. The surprise with this book was not in the character or the story-line(s) but the genre. I had always perceived this book as a complete novel. This perception might have been strengthened by the various movie adaptations I have watched. Even when I purchased it, this did not change. So you can imagine my surprise when I finally picked it up to read and suddenly discovered that it is a collection of short stories.

The story features the eponymous character Sherlock Holmes as he solved one mystery after the other, sometimes aided by his friend Dr Watson, and it was he who narrated the stories. The eccentric Sherlock Holmes did not care much about the mysteries he solved but to any observing eyes what he did is nothing different from the art of Houdini. Sherlock has more than five well developed senses. His sixth sense - the sense of intuition, and the seventh - the sense of extreme logical reasoning, helped him unravel cases that on the surface seemed insurmountable but which proved obvious to the reader after the little available facts had passed through his acute mind. As a polymath, no mystery was too strange, too difficult, or beyond the powers of Sherlock's mind.

In this collection of 12 short stories, the young reader is likely to develop some affection for this eccentric man of whom his friend, Dr Watson, said 
The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime. [20]
Sherlock Holmes is an embodiment of passion and knowledge. It is no wonder that he has come to represent more than just a character in history. This story reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith's The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency, a collection of short stories about how one woman set out to resolve problems. Even though one always knew Holmes would solve the mysteries, even when the evidence seems to be not available, one still wondered how it was going to be done. This is what makes Doyle's work interesting over a century after its publication. A book such as this is always recommended. It makes for light and fun-filled reading and could be squeezed between difficult books to cure the wooziness that accompanies reading such demanding books.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Caine Prize 2014 Shortlist

Exactly a week ago, the Caine Prize announced its 2014 shortlist. This year's shortlist was announced by the Nobel Prize winner and Patron of the Caine Prize Wole Soyinka, as part of the opening ceremonies for the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 celebration in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. The Shortlist comprises:
  1. Diane Awerbuck (South Africa) "Phosphorescence" in Cabin Fever (Umuzi, Cape Town. 2011)
  2. Efemia Chela (Ghana/Zambia) "Chicken" in Feast, Famine and Potluck (Short Story Day Africa, South Africa. 2013)
  3. Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe) "The Intervention" in Open Road Review, issue 7, New Delhi. 2013
  4. Billy Kahora (Kenya) "The Gorilla's Apprentice" in Granta (London. 2010)
  5. Okwiri Oduor (Kenya) "My Father's Head" in Feast, Famine and Potluck (Short Story Day Africa, South Africa. 2013)
Tendai Huchu is the author of The Hairdresser of Harare. Billy Kahora's Urban Zoning was nominated in 2012 Caine Prize Shortlist. To commemorate fifteen years of the Caine Prize this year, £500 will be awarded to each shortlisted writer. The winner of the £10,000 prize will be announced at a celebratory dinner at the Bodleian Library, Oxford on Monday 14 July.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Quotes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. [7]

A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs. [8]

You do not know her, but she has a soul of steel. She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men. [12-3]

it was not merely that Holmes has changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime. [20]

Women are naturally secretive, and they like to do their own secreting. [21]

As a rule, said Holmes, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify. [42-3]

[L]ife is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions stale and unprofitable. 55

The larger crimes are apt to be the simpler, for the bigger the crime, the more obvious, as a rule, is the motive. [57]

The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult is it to bring it home. [76]

Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing; it may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different. [79]

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact. [79]

You must act, man, or you are lost. Nothing but energy can save you. This is no time for despair. [112]

The ideal reasoner would, when he has once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it, but also all the results which would follow from it. [115-6]

I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner. [141]

Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another. [198]

Still, jealousy is a strange transformer of characters. [236]

We can't command our love, but we can our actions. [243]

It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. [273]

Monday, April 21, 2014

290. How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories Vol. 1 by Chuma Nwokolo

Chuma Nwokolo may not be a household name. But those who have listened to him read or have read his books have come to appreciate his stories. To such fortunate folks Chuma remains an excellent author with a keen sense of observation and of humour. Recently the author of Diaries of a Dead African and The Ghost of Sani Abacha released another collection of short stories titled How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories to mark the centenary anniversary of the amalgamation of the pre-Nigerian states and the formation of the country Nigeria.

Those who have read Chuma have come to appreciate his unique writing styles and his prodigiousness. First, according to the author his attention span is too short for a novel, so that even the novel-like DOADA is really three interlinked novellas. Consequently, the author has resorted to the short story genre to tell his stories and over time has mastered the rudiments of this genre. The Ghost of Sani Abacha contained twenty-six short stories, almost twice the number one is likely to find in most anthologies. It is therefore not surprising that Chuma would set himself the huge task of putting together hundred (100) short stories. The first volume of this two part publications contains fifty short stories and it is expected that the second volume would have the other fifty.

How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories (Gwandustan, 2013; 289) is a compendium of vistas of everyday occurrences in Nigeria, Africa, and the world at large, delivered through different writing styles. The stories are taken from life through keen observations and acute deductions and served to the reader in a way that will make them seem obvious upon reading, creating that retrospective and reflective epiphany or the aha! moment. Sometimes the stories capture the reader's situation so perfectly that he wonders how the author got it so right. They are so true to life and to our daily experiences that some of them do not even qualify to be described as stories anymore. They have moved beyond the realms of fiction, of fact-based fiction, of historical fiction, into something else. They are more of essays or treatises on societal issues than fiction. They could be easily quoted and referenced in any work of scholarship.

One that fits these descriptions perfectly is The Ten Commandments of Nigerian Politics. There is nothing in this story that is completely fictitious or that is not, or could not, be true. Even the way Chuma chose to begin the story caused me to question its presence in a work of fiction. The author begins the short story with a disclaimer:
As you will understand when you finish reading these commandments, I did not actually write them. I found a small, black notebook in the toilet cubicle as the plane approached Abuja airport. It clearly wasn't there when we left Lagos, yet nobody claimed the book when I waved it in front of the forty people on that flight. ...
This is a story about a guy - Goddy - who has been contracted by scammers to write a manual on how they could transition from scamming to politics. This guy has studied the political scene for so long - perhaps just as the author has done - that he knows and has mastered the rudiments of the game, even if he is not playing in it. According to Goddy, the first commandment of Nigerian politics is Don't Hit the Big People. Hit the Little People Ice. He refers to the little people as Nigerian mugus, those who are oblivious of the fact that they owned billions of dollars. All that the politician has to do is to strategically place himself between the billions and the people. He explains:
I know your second question: what's the point? After all, little people have no money. Wrong. Last year, 19 billion dollars entered the federal account of 140 million Nigerians. Go and multiply that. That is not a small amount of money.
The year before they budgeted 4 trillion Naira to take care of this same 140 million little people. Do you know how many zeros are behind that four? I see. Your job as a politician is to position yourself between that money and the 140 million mugus that own it.
Chuma, in this conversational writing style, explains how Nigerian (African) politicians corrupt the system and siphon public money into personal accounts. This particular behaviour of politicians and the government they form has been touched upon in most contemporary Nigerian novels. From Chinua Achebe's not-so contemporary (1966) A Man of the People to Sefi Atta's (2013) A Bit of Difference this route to wealth and recognition in Nigeria's class society has been denounced and documented. Obinze and his friends' lives are encapsulated by this in Chimamanda's (2013) Americanah. This route is so widely known and accepted among its perpetrators - past, present, and future - that as recent as the second week in April (13th) it was exhibited in all of its glory and goriness at the wedding ceremony of Goodluck Jonathan's daughter. It was so conspicuous, so showy, so plangent and deafening, that it was ugly. Anyone who has read Chuma's story will not but see the confluence between the fiction and the fact. Under Clinching the Nomination - the second command, Chuma writes:
The first thing is to get a nomination. To do that, you need a political party. Don't ask me why, that's just what our constitution says, and that is why today we have more than fifty parties. But you must not waste your time with the papa-mama-and-pickin type of political party. Go straight to the biggest and find out the local godfather. ...
Most of these godfathers have a dozen or more official children, so within six months there will be many birthdays, naming ceremonies, burials (god forbid), graduations and what have you. On each special day, if there's no party, drop your carton of champagne and envelope of money at the gate and go. Remember the golden rule for donations: If you cannot be among the top five donors, don't waste your money. (Emphasis mine)
Is it therefore strange that the President's daughter is reported to have received one hundred and seventy five (175) cars as gifts? Is this a mere act of kindness or it is as Chuma said, to gain favour in the eyes of the godfather and facilitate future considerations from the president? Or were they given as appreciation to a past favour from him? The motive is as clear as daylight (forget the cliche).

Chuma further discussed how to win the election, give victory speech, 'eat' the (public) money, react when Nigerians stir from their slumber, and how to play the ethnic card and manage the police. As much as this story is funny, it is also saddening because it is the absolute truth. It shows how a few psychopaths could capture power and treat others in so evil a manner.

In OPM the problem of corruption that has bedevilled most countries is seen playing in the homes of the corrupt. In trying to play smart on each other, a whole country finds itself in a situation where cheating and being cheated become the norm and inherent part of peoples' lives. Yet, each person thinking that he is cheating another ends up cheating himself as the roads are not built; the schools are not built; degrees are purchased; and quack professionals end the lives of people through ignorance. In a household of a corrupt 'chief', everybody is pinching the other. Whereas the patriarch is pinching the government, the wife is pinching him, and the daughter is making deals with the housekeeping money. Even the steward is making a business out of the household's provisions with his son, who (unknown to all) was the Chief's taxi driver, by night. When the Chief discovered that his daughter was repackaging local rice as Basmati rice, he explained to her that when it comes to deals, there is a line. One should only hit Other People's Money [OPM].
Listen Alma, there's an invisible line you must never cross when you're doing business...' 'And what line is that?' ... 'The line of family, of loyalty.' 'You're the one crossing the line, Papa'... 'How? By saying the obvious? It was not the basmati rice, that's the fact.' 'What do facts have to do with loyalty? I lie for you. Last month when we travelled home on that horrible road, I knew it was your road. I knew how much you made from it, and did I say a word? Did I complain in front of the driver? That was loyalty Dad. Once we passed your road we all started complaining about the bad roads and the corruption killing Nigeria. That was loyalty. But you! Because of small rice deal you and your wife were disgracing me in front of the steward-'...
Tear Rubber alludes to the extravagance and markers of wealth in the Nigerian (African) society. A young man purchased a brand new full-leather interior, climate-control, BMW X5 Sports and, as customs demand, decided to show it to his uncle in the village. This village uncle was unimpressed and decided to have a word with his nephew. 
'What I really want to ask you is this,' he said finally, sucking his teeth when the first stick was gone, 'what are you trying do say?'
'I don't think I understand you, Pa-Dey.'
'Look,' he said, opening wide his mouth, 'this is Naija, stop beating around the bush. If you want to say something, say it ho-ha! If you have arrived you buy a Mercedes. Okay? It is simple like that. Whether it is second-hand or third-hand doesn't matter anything. Nobody is saying that you can't buy more cars later-later, the first one is a good Mercedes eh? I just said I should tell you: because there can't be old man in the house and small-small boys will be digging pit-latrine where they buried their grandpapa'
Yet, politics and class are not the only domain in which Chuma's eyes capture all the details and nuances. He is at home with domestic issues, pun intended, as he is with politics. The first story of the anthology, Letter to a Young Wife from an Old, discusses what successful marriages are made of or how some have managed to survive the turbulence. This skill set of keeping the family together, regardless of the problems it encounters, has been passed on from older women to the younger ones over generations and are delivered on the eve of marriage and throughout one's married life. However, over time they have - like everything else - been modified, enhanced, to reflect the times. They have moved from the days when women grovel before their husbands like worshippers before their gods, in absolute servility, to the period where strategic anger and violence is permitted, as long as they remain within a certain acknowledged but unspoken perimeter. It is the latter, or rather the ingredients or methodology of the latter, that Chuma discusses in this epistolary story. A woman is entitled to react violently - measuredly and methodically - to her husband's misdemeanours, especially if it is adultery. If carried out properly, this reaction will elicit the required shame from the offending husband and lead to a significant (even if short-lived) change or to a better way of hiding his crime in future. Whichever way he chooses, there is bliss - even if from ignorance.

In this story, a young woman has perhaps gone overboard in her reaction and is being advised by an experienced wife on how to manage her anger; how to show it and hurt her husband, bring tears to his eyes and still not get him angry.
Thou art a young wife, so I shall open all my mouth. On that first day that his adultery comes to light, the whole world is right behind you, so let the force of your fury be known. Be natural, let it all hang out. The plates, the frame photographs of your wedding, his suits even, these are the legitimate, the expected casualties of his embarrassing sex. Noise the scandal to whom you may, what more do you have to hide? ... Tell your friends, the groundnut hawker, his own friends even. Let the world feel the pain of his betrayal of you. Pain shared = pain halved, and all that.
According to the old wife, this violence is justified if it is limited to selected items and kept within two days. On the third day, calm is suppose to reign. The snivelling must stop. If not, her friends (wives of his husband's friends) will begin to get annoyed with her for all the care she is receiving from their husbands, who are  no saints themselves.
Nobody wants their husband to be holding and comforting another weeping woman for days on end, even if they are best of friends. Besides, all your married friends have horror tales of their own, and it is in bad taste to complain to a doctor about your pimple, when he is sitting on a scrotum engorged by elephantiasis. ...
[T]he clever wife's rage is entirely premeditated. Nothing is ever done in the heat of the moment. She goes through her house carefully, determining the casualties of his next misbehaviour. When I fly through my house breaking things I might look quite mad, but my eyes are very discriminating I tell you. I remember an aquarium I hated so much, but it was a gift from my mother-in-law, and you know how that breaks down... anyway it took three years before he gave me an excuse to break it. Poor fish. Anyway, nothing, nothing, will provoke me to raise my hand against my own car. Am I mad? That's the point you forgot, isn't it? The car may be in his name but it belongs to you. Just like the plates and photographs and old suits... these are impressive victims of your rage, but they don't cost too much.
Anyone who has read Chuma's stories, will quickly realise that he has a knack for understanding relationships. He sees things no one else does. His stories of relationships are different from what one is likely to read everyday. They open up recesses and expose details one rarely sees. This is observed in The Tranquil of Sukosu and Wife and Phonesurfing. In the former, a man and his wife had been living a quiet and unquestioning life; safe in their ignorance of each other and in the love they had been professing to each for thirty years. Then one day the man asked his wife if he was his first love. A negative response nibbled at his curiosity: who was he, he asked; but when the response began with a 'she...' they both settled quickly into silence, into their safe unquestioning lives, after a brief discomfiture. The latter is about a married couple who were surfing each other's phone secretly for traces of secret relationships.

These stories have the quintessential Chuma flavour of insight and humour. His writings seem to indicate that life is one whole string of humorous and insane events, if one observes closely enough. Otherwise, how could the failure of an electricity company to cut power cause anxiety and depression in a man? In The End of Failure the negative is the norm. In a country where power supply is intermittent and load-shedding is the norm, an extended power supply is received with fear and anxiety and anticipation of an extended power cut. This added to the man's frustrations. Here Chuma's skills as a storyteller is clear. How he used just a power failure to express, in all its detailed ugliness, the frustrations and tensions of the lower middle class is indeed amazing and fantastic.

Most of Chuma's stories are about the lives of ordinary people. However, none represents the working class - the proletarians - than Envy. The story seems to suggest that happiness is not in things but in us. It has often been said of the working class that they are a happy class because they do not suffer the pain and non-satiation that accompany the wanton possessiveness of the upper class. That they are free from the clutches of the fear of suddenly losing their wealth. But this perceived and ascribed lower-class-working-class satisfaction is a deprecative and overly romanticised view. It does not exist. For though they do not suffer what the wealthy folks do, they also suffer from envy and jealousy. Therefore, there is a sort of cyclical envy flowing among the classes. The wealthy folks wishing for the superficial happiness of the poor and the poor the wealth of the wealthy. In Envy, the Eye has been watching people all through eternity. It is ancient and all-seeing. One day it sighted half a dozen men who had closed from a day's work of chiselling granite under a difficult supervisor. In their rags and poverty, these men found it within themselves to laugh into complete abandon. The Eye became envious, for he who had seen a lot in life could not comprehend how these men with virtually nothing could be this happy.

Chuma's stories are far from the Hut-and-Thatch, Calabash-and-Palm-wine, Poverty-and-Death stories most African stories have come to be known. They are contemporary. Even those that dealt with religion. Religion forms an important part of the life of an African. Over time, the African has moved from his native religion, referred to as traditional religion, to Christianity. However, the distinction between the two is blurring with pastors accusing each other of occultism. What people refuse to acknowledge is the gradual assimilation of traditional religious beliefs into Christianity facilitated by the similarities between the two. In Mama Makancha's Kitchen a witch-doctor who converted to Christianity and, as is characteristic of all such conversions, threw away his gods was surprised that his miracle-performing pastor had gone to his witch-doctor friend for supernatural powers. On hearing this from his friend, he sought to locate and retrieve his gods only to find out that the weeping grindstone Mama Makancha had invited him to exorcise was his long-lost god. He began to find a way to whisk the god-grindstone away from Mama Makancha who was unwilling to let go of her grindstone. 

Facebookland is another contemporary story. Who is a friend? Is it the one you meet everyday in real life? Or those you share your life's intimate moments with on the virtual world? Or both? What if you fell sick and no one commented on your page and you mistakenly posted that you were sick and some questioned the veracity of your post and asked that you stopped joking, and others expressed their hollow sympathies? Are they friends? Is the virtual world of social media full of phonies? What happens if one of such friends - those you only know on that platform - thousands of miles away, txt to ask you how you felt and whether you were doing well, is he not a true friend? This story presents the dilemma of social media - the positives and negatives of living on the virtual world.

Chuma has mastered several methods of arresting his readers attention. His first lines and paragraphs are catchy. They draw the reader in and deliver the knockout one blow at a time. In addition to this he creates interest by indirectly raising suspicions or questions and leaving them unanswered. These nibble at the reader's mind, demanding to be answered. In Spouseplay one is likely to question whether the newly married woman cheated (on her husband) on the first day of entering her husband's house with the taxi driver who brought them, or not. This is a story of a man who was morbidly (even psychologically) afraid of women. This morbid fear coupled with his unproven existence of a girlfriend led his mother to marry for him. The story is set on the first day he arrived home with his wife - his prevarications and confusions of what to do or say. When the woman sent him on errands to buy difficult-to-get items only to come and meet the taxi of the driver who had brought them home parked in his front yard. He became suspicious. When he was met at the door by a seemingly furtive wife who once again sent him to get an even more elusive item, his suspicions grew. But when he finally got entry into his house through the back door, he met the taxi driver scrubbing the floor and asking for another bottle of beer. Did something happen between the two? Maybe yes. Maybe no. There are indications to both answers.

Another method is leaving parts of the stories nebulous for the reader to disentangle, if he can. An example of this is in Just Add Spice. When a bride-groom saw his immediate ex-girlfriend - a woman who had financed him - at his wedding he raised an alarm for her to be arrested. It did not help that this ex-girlfriend had shared to the guests turkey sandwiches. Suddenly, all those who had eaten the sandwiches began to vomit and the woman was arrested. A toxicology test proved negative. Why would a woman who claimed she never truly loved this man, and that she was preparing to jilt him, attend and destroy his wedding? The same method was used in The Police Masseur, where a woman prevented her husband from being investigated by throwing a police officer off his search duties in her home. After the incident, with promises of non-disclosure on both sides (police and woman), Chuma dropped a hint that some of the woman's ex-husbands were languishing in jail - one for trying to sell the country's embassy in Congo. Is it not the woman who is the brain behind her husbands dealings? Similarly in Replacement, a Kafkaesque story, a man who responded to a call to walk at midnight returned to find that his position in his home had been taken over by his other self. Unlike Henry in The Time Traveler's Wife, this new self did not know the old one. This man had entered into a deal we are not told and by his acceptance had suddenly been transformed and replaced.

There are several other interesting and resonating stories. In Ancestral Stone a woman crippled her son to prevent slave raiders from kidnapping him. This is similar to what Sethe did to Beloved in that eponymous Morrison novel. When the man survived the raid, he did same to his children and none was taken by the slave raiders. There is the story of a man who spared a child he had caught stealing a radio only to meet him later as an armed robber (Spared Child); there is also the story of a gatekeeper who was sponsored to Mecca by his Madam and when upon his return this Madam did not add the necessary Alhaji title to his name he became morose and he who took initiatives froze in his work (The Pilgrim's Address). 

Chuma's stories are not culturally closed or limiting. One does not require local knowledge to understand or appreciate them, or at least some of them. In Bloody Benjy he shows that more often than not a work of art is famous only because of the name of the artiste embossed on the work and that work itself is of no relevance. It is explained in relation to the artiste so that if the name changes the enthusiasm will change. This idea is carried into Poetic Justice - one of the longest short stories in the collection. The story suggests that mostly the same people win awards not because they are consistently good but because their reputations go ahead of them. It suggests that most awards are flawed and rigged so that even when they tell you that entries are sent to judges without the authors' names, it is usually fallacious.

The author employed different writing styles to tell his stories. There are dialogues, monologues, interviews, epistolary, and others. There is definitely something to love in a collection of fifty short stories - this being the anthology with the largest collection of short stories (single- or multiple-authored) I have ever read - and definitely something not to like. For though Chuma's stories are wonderful, insightful, relevant, and varied, in such a huge collection there were always going to be wide variances in their likability. Regardless, the likes outnumber the not-likes. The latter are usually stories one felt the author could have fleshed up. They begin on an interesting note and before the reader is aware they have ended, suddenly.

To say that Chuma Nwokolo is a great writer is an understatement. He is an author whose works have souls. They speak to the reader. They are both 'novel' and familiar. In a sense, he presents everyday issues with a different insight; one that illuminates the reader's mind and brings to him that wonderful epiphanic aha! moment. He is able to turn everyday events into stories worth the read. Will he end up as one of the great authors the mainstream never met, never read? To those who have read him, it is our joy; to the industry their loss. However, let it not be said that he was 'undiscovered'. By whom? This is recommended to all.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Quotes from Chuma Nwokolo's How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories Vol. 1

Thou art a young wife, so I shall open all my mouth. On that first day that his adultery comes to light, the whole world is right behind you, so let the force of your fury be known. Be natural, let it all hang out. The plates, the frame photographs of your wedding, his suits even, these are the legitimate, the expected casualties of his embarrassing sex. Noise the scandal to whom you may, what more do you have to hide? 
[11, Letter to a Young Wife From an Old]

Nobody wants their husband to be holding and comforting another weeping woman for days on end, even if they are best of friends. Besides, all your married friends have horror tales of their own, and it is in bad taste to complain to a doctor about your pimple, when he is sitting on a scrotum engorged by elephantiasis.
[12, Letter to a Young Wife From an Old]

[T]he clever wife's rage is entirely premeditated. Nothing is ever done in the heat of the moment. She goes through her house carefully, determining the casualties of his next misbehaviour. When I fly through my house breaking things I might look quite mad, but my eyes are very discriminating I tell you. I remember an aquarium I hated so much, but it was a gift from my mother-in-law, and you know how that breaks down... anyway it took three years before he gave me an excuse to break it. Poor fish. Anyway, nothing, nothing, will provoke me to raise my hand against my own car. Am I mad? That's the point you forgot, isn't it? The car may be in his name but it belongs to you. Just like the plates and photographs and old suits... these are impressive victims of your rage, but they don't cost too much.
 [12, Letter to a Young Wife From an Old]

There is a system to the madness of a wounded wife and no matter how many times your daughter comes between you and your husband, you take her carefully to the side before swinging the pestle again, don't you?
[13, Letter to a Young Wife From an Old]

By the way, I don't know who suggested the pestle to you, but it is a very bad idea. You are putting ideas into his head. An angry woman can swing a pestle around for show but the angry man will throw the whole mortar. After all you are not the junior sister of Jesus Christ. One day you will make a mistake yourself and all he has to do is throw it once and your are dead.
[13, Letter to a Young Wife From an Old]

He did not know what it was about women that terrified him so. His friends were always ribbing him about it. It was almost like a mental condition, the way he froze up a the approach of a woman. It was so bad that the three sexual relations of his were lies from first to last. 
[23, Spouseplay]

A familiar travesty was more family friend than anathema. 
[45, The End of Failure]

[W]hen hot moin-moin enters a room full of hungry people, anybody who goes to wash his hand first will have himself to blame when he comes back and meets an empty plate.
[95, Adult Education Application]

Her eyesight was crap but her mind was as sharp as okra grater.
[99, Remembering Remilekun]

Hitting OPM [Other People's Money] is wisdom, but hitting yourself... that's foolishness. This is the same food you are going to eat! Besides, I am your father, everything I have is yours.
[116-7, OPM]

This manual has been written only for the eyes of The Maitama Club. If you are not a member, please stop reading now. It is by reading things that don't concern them that many men have lost their manhoods. You have been warn.
[148, The Ten Commandments of Nigerian Politics]

Every obsessive has at least one killing inside him.
[176, Accounting for Drunks]

[A] security man with a secret grudge was a bad risk.
[206, The Pilgrim's Address]

You're having a spot headache but others have lost their heads entirely.
[229, Poetic Justice]

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

289. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Every art enthusiast has at least an artiste he or she is dedicated to, whom he would follow thoroughly. They may not necessarily like everything about these artistes but they make it a point to know them and their works. This is common about musicians and visual artists. Almost five years ago, when I was making a list of 100 Books I want to read in five years, I took such a decision. I promised myself I would read every book Chimamanda publishes, irrespective of the reviews that she would garner. (Another author I mentally selected was Ayi Kwei Armah.) Since then I have read all four of Adichie's known published books, including Americanah (Fourth Estate, 2013), the author's third novel after the highly-successful Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) and her fourth published book following her anthology of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009). 

When a writer achieves success and fame with his early works and comes to symbolise a people, their aspirations, their potentials, their future, willingly or unwillingly, his critics fall into two distinct camps: those who critique him for fame and those who obsequiously grovel before him and cannot move a step beyond the praises and salaams. The former are leeches. In Economics they could be referred to as free-riders. Their only focus is to be considered intelligent because they have read and found loopholes in the work of an author considered by most as intelligent. Their only aim is to look for 'what is wrong with the work'. They seek fame by riding on the back of the famous whilst shrouding their ulterior motives in layers of dark calico. They are like the double-faced god Janus. Their Jekyll-and-Hyde behaviour always exposes them in the end.

The latter, on the other hand, is much worst. They see roses where there are are boundless dunes. They are afraid to be criticised for criticising or critiquing the work of such a writer of monumental standing. Their thinking and behaviour is based on the principle that 'if one cannot fight the hounds, then one must join the hounds'. And that is what they do - they join the hounds. In fact, they are the hounds. They bar others from doing so, erecting tall walls around their idols and descending on any who attempts to climb it. They take every critique as a personal attack and riposte in a so devastating a fashion that sometimes the author himself becomes worried. On several internet forums any article by Achebe or Soyinka divides the commenters into almost two parts: those praising Achebe and dissing Soyinka and those praising Soyinka and dissing Achebe. I wonder how there could not be many great writers at a time.

However, there is always a third group. These are people who, without any objective of gains, say exactly what they want to about book without contradicting themselves in anyway. They are sometime just readers who express themselves and react to a novel in as simple a way as possible without the trappings of forced interpretations and associations of the academics. Theirs is a feeling to and not a deconstruction of the work. They cannot handle the academic-ese that the scholars draped their criticisms in. Sometimes they are are academics who are interested in scholarly implications, explanations, expositions, interrogations, of such works and are not worried about being descended upon for criticising a work or being criticised for falling for a work so trivial. They are able to deconstruct the work and shows its flaws and strengths. Their outputs however remain within their circles and those who are able to decipher their jargon. With no training in literature, writing, deconstruction, and any of the other subjects these critics are immersed in, I am just a reader and my reactions of the layman's.

Chimamanda has become a household name in literature around the world. The New Yorker listed her as one of the best twenty writers under forty. Her books have won numerous awards. If African literature (just writings by Africans and no more than that) has a face, it would be hers and no other, or so it has been made to be. She gives talks in universities and the one on The Danger of a Single Story is a hit.  It has been watched over a million times on Youtube. When Americanah was released it was met with high praises. The buzz was loud and the reviews were wild. The story, as was reported in interviews and articles, was about hair, love, and race. Suddenly, Zadie Smith's White Teeth - an excellent story about race, migration, love, genetic research, religious upheavals, and activism - popped into my head. It remained the only Americanah flotsam until I finally opened the novel and began to read. However, for reasons that will be stated presently, I was disappointed with Americanah not that it did not imitate White Teeth - that would have been worst and I expected not a replica of that book in this - but this is supposed to be a novel about hair and all that. Besides, after seven years of waiting for an Adichie novel, I expected more. This one is comparatively disappointing. And by comparison I mean with the author's own works; not with the Kouroumas who have cured me of their writings. Yes, she commanded my attention  but the euphoria dipped.

To begin with, the story is hardly about hair in particular and more generally about race relations, though it forms only fraction of the story. This is not to say that a story cannot be more than one thing. Zadie shows the way. But this is basically a story of  love between two childhood sweethearts separated by over four-hundred pages of writings and thousands of miles. Though it is not the cheesy type of romance by the likes of Judith McNaught, Danielle Steel and their ilks - the romance is not dripping all over the pages - it has a subtle semblance to such stories plot-wise; especially in its belief in the long-lasting nature of love or the belief in childhood-love maturing into adult romance and the existence, and sudden appearance, of second chances in those novels. It is not that love does not exist or such types of love is impossible or do not make good literature. Ask Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. She knows how devastating such love could be and he how love could make a good story. Love exists and expresses itself in ways that sometimes makes observers wonder about how vast and all-encompassing and sometimes evil love can be. Vronsky and Anna are a case in point. However, in Americanah the love story was too simple and hardly excites. It lacks the emotional swings and philosophical investigations of the Tolstoys and the cheesiness of the Steels for those who like them soggy.

Obinze fell in love with Ifemelu the first day he enrolled at her school. However, a series of economic and political instabilities and strikes and a momentous opportunity saw them separate at the university when Ifemelu had a scholarship to study in America. As an immigrant, Ifemelu suffered a series of discrimination and it was there that she realised she was different. This race shock got her into blogging (the part of the story I enjoyed most). Her incisive insights into race relations, her spot-on no-nonsense blog-posts brought her fame and soon she was paid to give lectures all over. I became a fan. This part of the story brought home the experiences and observations of the travelled black person. There were newly-arrived blacks versus settled blacks; African Americans versus Whites; African Americans vs African Blacks. The issues seemed endless: some white folks pretending not to see colour; and others doing nothing to hide their racism. There is also the issue of successful blacks who are no longer thought of, or considered, as blacks like Oprah (though a recent event at a Swiss boutique shows that a black person never outgrows his or her skin). 

Another angle of race discrimination is accent. How this is important has always bothered me as anyone who has an accent speaking another language is most likely to be at least bilingual. However, in the life of an immigrant it becomes an extremely important determinant of intelligence. The closer an immigrant's accent is to a native speaker's the more suave and genteel he is considered to be and the wider the variance the thicker the idiocy ascribed to him. This led to a general craze among immigrant communities to strive to sound as American (or British, depending on where one is) as possible and he who achieves this is looked upon with envy and respect by his people. In the search for this, and to live the 'civilised' life and harvest all the advantages that come with it, some emigres refuse to teach their children their local language, lest it interferes with and stubbornly intrude upon their acquisition of the posh accent of the elite. The acquisition of a British or American accent, per the story, seemed to even excuse spoil behaviour by African children. Thus, they who acquire posh accent lose their African identity and consequently any African sensibilities associated with it. Similarly, stretched, silky, shiny hair is considered professional and braids and the natural woolly African hair are looked upon with disgust. In fact, the fastest way for an African to not be considered for a job is to arrive at the interview in braids or in her natural hair. The images Chimamanda painted here is no different from what we are bombarded everyday. Recently, when a young American with first generation African parents became the first person to be enrolled in all eight Ivy Leagues, some readers attributed it to the fact that he was black, and that had he been white he would not have had such a privilege. And those who spoke like this refused to look at his score; they only saw his skin and the success and connected the two with a straight line. Yet, the black man cannot get to rise in certain jobs; is racially profiled; is discriminated against at every turn; and they form the largest population in prison. How this became a privilege is hard to see. When Gabby Douglas won her Olympic gold, the talk was not on the success. It was on her hair. The next time she appeared it was at the back of Essence magazine in shiny, silky, straightened hair.

Chimamanda also discusses the extent to which immigrants will go to obtain legal documents and citizenship in western countries - the underground business of fake marriages; working with the other people's insurance and social security numbers, which comes with a drastic change in identity (names); the fear of being arrested and deported; the hopelessness of the African professional in search of a job in a country that does not need him or recognise his worth. These were the quite important flag-posts of Americanah.

Like Seffi Atta's A Bit of Difference, Americanah opens a discourse on Nigerian (African) middle class society. It discusses the Nigerian upper-middle and lower-middle class families - those who are working so hard (legally and fraudulently) to live the life of the upper class. In this discussion of Nigerian societies, class and social-mobility become significant themes and the Oga-Girl relationships is one of the identified ways for an upward rise on the social ladder. The other is looking for, and finding, an 'Oga' (a big-shot) who would guide your path and introduce you to all the right people with the right deals. And this was what Obinze did, when his cousin Nneama introduced him to one such man who fancied her, to help him find his feet in an economy he was over-qualified to work in but has been prevented from doing so because he knew not the right men. The discussion also touches on the middle class's disregard for the lower class and their hatred, love, and envy of the upper class. They feel insulted for not having enough and in striving for it look down upon others. They become the most fragile of the economic classes. They lack the wealth of the upper class and the hardiness of the lower class to make them resilient. Unlike the lower class which has developed deep and lasting coping mechanisms for themselves, the middle class live a risky life in their strife to be and be seen wealthy. Thus, though they may be richer than the lower class, they are mostly hovering on the borderlines of penury and the slightest economic wind could make them fall on either side.

Even among the middle class, there are differences. There is intelligentsia middle class, who in Chimamanda's writings, live on university campuses (Nsukka) surrounded by books. Their knowledge is almost boundless and are mostly liberals who have stripped themselves of every strand of the trappings of the traditional society. Obinze belonged to this household. In this household, there is no taboo subjects and religion is hardly given a thought. Subjects such as sex and boyfriends flow as easily as discussions of important works of literature and music. The other is the lower middle class - in letters and not necessarily in wealth - who hold onto their beliefs only as long as it serves or pretends to serve their needs. Into this household was Ifemelu with a religious mother  in search of financial miracles and a father who believed in nothing.

The role of religion in Nigerian (African) society was also dealt with. The sudden rise in the number of churches and the level of crime; the use of the church as a place for developing social connections by the middle class and for showing grandeur, in their demand for respect, by the upper class. The pastors have become the new parvenus. They put up the rich in their church as the standard of God's blessings and the poor and the middle class strive to reach and receive these blessings. It does not matter that these wealthy folks are known among the society to be corrupt or to be pathologically evil; as long as they are wealthy and attend church they are godly. In the end, religion becomes a means to riches and whatever one does, as long as it ends in wealth, it does not matter. In this way, religiosity is able to live within the same time and space with crime, which is not necessarily considered to be one as long as it has not resulted in an arrest.

Now the problems. In an article I read, it was attributed to the author that this was supposed to be her 'Fuck You' kind of story. Perhaps in a manner that challenges norms and breaks the thin hypocrisy that covers African societies and Africans with their penchant for pretence. They choose to do evil but see no evil - playing the proverbial ostrich with morality. Highly immoral, they are known to utter 'this is un-African' to anything even when they secretly desire it. However, I do not consider Americanah as a fuck-you novel. In fact, it is not even at par with Adichie's first two novels and whatever was achieved in this chunky 477-page novel, Sefi Atta did more in almost half the number of pages in her novel A Bit of Difference. Both novels were about western-educated single women who have hit their prime, intending to come home to settle and are not sure of exactly what they want. They are both about love, relationships, diasporean life, homecoming, and society; except that I enjoyed the Deola-Wade relationship more than the Ifemelu-Obinze (non)relationship. The latter was a bit forced into realisation. The dynamics of the middle-class family became a point of investigation in both novels especially of husbands making a lot of money and cheating on their wives and wives who do same, and what it takes to live the middle and upper class life in Nigeria. However, Sefi Atta did better on the family dynamism and on the love relationship. It was tight and provided room for speculation. Simply, Americanah is too simple and direct a story.

A large chunk of the story is told in flashback. It opens with Ifemelu going for braids and spirals backwards into her past life. At that point, she had made her mind of going back home - to Nigeria - for good. This created a situation where the reader knows that Ifemelu and her childhood lover, Obinze - who was flying high in Nigeria, were definitely going to meet end and all the reading in between were in anticipation of that. This is common in some novels. But in Americanah the reader, after the last page, realises there was no significant lateral story, no monumental event, nothing. All the fill-ins between the first page and the last page were just to delay this meeting and prolong the story. Even the blog-posts lose their essence when inserted into the love story. It is like watching a Ghanaian/Nigerian movie and seeing Jackie Appiah/Ini Edo in poverty and John Dumelo/Desmond Elliot in wealth; you will be dead sure that the two will meet in the end and in 9 out of 10 you will be right. You can go to the kitchen and do all the cooking you want and the first question you will ask upon your return will be 'have they met yet?'. That was how the story felt. A skimmer could just read the first fifty and the last fifty pages and would still get the gist of the story. In fact, the actual meeting between the two only occurred fifty pages to the end of the book. A reader wants more from a story; the story should draw the ohs and ahs from its readers - it should more than just imitate life. Perhaps, that is why it is a 'novel'.

After the two met the story raced to the end. And it just ended. It was as if the writer suddenly decided that everybody has had enough. It is this sudden ending of the story that betrays Adichie's 'fuck you' objective. Instead of betraying the traditional African behaviour, it rather lends it a quiver of arrows to shoot its opponents. It does this with its use of that trite phrase men usually pull from the bag when they want to divorce their wives, who had submissively lived with them and of whom they could find no excuse for divorce. Yet, because a new woman is lurking on the horizon, a woman they intensely want, they manufacture such lame excuses as 'we should not have married; you are not the one for me' and others to justify their cowardice and accept responsibility. In the case of Ifemelu and Obinze, Obinze added a wicked line to it: the level of his wife's literacy; something he never considered until Ifemelu reentered the picture. The story would have been 'un-African' on several levels if Obinze had stayed married to his wife but had developed an erotic relationship with Ifemelu. Then the defenders of Africa's tradition would have argued first that Ifemelu is not married to Obinze and therefore she is immoral (though they would have wished for it and some do it); that Ifemelu is coming back into the society with all the trappings of western education and culture to influence young women to imitate such immoral acts. Ifemelu's mother would have whined for falling in love with a married man, after all her education. Her father would have fussed and fumed. And the feminists would have wondered which educated woman would stoop low to do so and be considered as a mistress. It would also have gone against the norm in such romantic love stories where almost always two people who had been in love since childhood definitely ends up married, no matter how far apart they go. Or Ifemelu would have decided not to contact Obinze and would have fallen for a different person and tricked everybody.

But Chimamanda is a fantastic writer. This is her greatest asset. She commands the reader's attention, and she commanded mine, even if she is not saying much or is merely repeating what one has heard before. She is like a musician with an extraordinary voice. Regardless of the lyrics, people will pay attention - even if only to her voice. Because this is from a layman's reading, it would be important if you read it for yourself and discover what it means to you. After all, it is not a boring book. None of her books is.

Monday, April 07, 2014

March in Review and Projections for April

March was a not-so-good month. Unlike last year, I have been falling behind in my reading targets very early in the year. At the end of March, I was two books behind and have read 13 books instead of 15 towards the target of 60 for the year. Though I am improving on my reading speed, I am slacking on consistency. It is likely that April will not be different. 

I read the only book I projected to read in March and three others. The dwindling numbers of unread books on my shelf means that I am not motivated enough to pick a book. Most of the unread books are those I have passed by on several occasions, not that they are not good but I do not have the urge to read them. This reduced degrees of freedom is impacting badly on my vision to read more African books. Thus, any African book that comes into my possession is given priority. Two of the four books I read were African books. Of the four, one was a poetry anthology, two were collections of short stories, and one was a novel. The slump from February to March was too steep. I read a total of 1,225 pages (or 39.5 pages per day), which is woefully below the previous month's 58 pages per day. The following are the books read:
  • How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories Vol. One by Chuma Nwokolo. Chuma has published two collections of short stories to celebrate the centenary celebrations of the formation of Nigeria as a single country. The first volume of 50 short stories was published in 2013 and the second is likely to be out any moment from now (or might already have been published). It was always going to be difficult putting 50 short stories together. Not that they were below what Chuma has done in The Ghost of Sani Abacha. No. This was also as interesting and as varied as the TGSA. However, the stories are of varied lengths and a few are more of observations than actual stories. There were some that one felt the author could have fleshed up just a bit. But overall, Chuma's humour, his keen insight into life, shine through.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. I always thought this was a novel until I opened it to read. I was very much surprised. The manner in which Sherlock Holmes made everything easy was rather interesting. Though one knew he would solve it, one's expectation is more in the 'how?' than in the 'can he?'. However, I felt that this was just a bit below my expectations of the widely acclaimed character. Perhaps I should read more of Holmes. It also reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith's The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency.
  • Testament of the Seasons by Mawuli Adzei. This is the first poetry anthology I have read in the year. It was a selection of the Book and Discussion Club of the Writers Project of Ghana for the month of March. The author was present at the discussion and it was an interesting evening. The anthology covers a wide range of issues and as the title suggests, it is a testament of the seasons we have been through, or more specifically the poet has been through. It covers issues from the Cold War to the Arab Springs. As the blurb states, the collection covers a thirty-year period. Issues of life and death and identity - tribal, racial, etc. - are also addressed. Its volume (at 151 pages) speaks less of what it contains. The writing is marvellous and Mawuli's choice and the rhythm of his words are fantastic.
  • Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. This is one of the books I have skipped several times. It was the oldest unread books on my shelf, having purchased it in August 2010, because I was put off by the author's James Bond novel Devil May Care. However, I kept finding it listed in a number of 'best books...' so I decided to give it a go. And, my god!, I was not disappointed. This is a stupendous novel and because I have read both books it has been compared with - The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway - it resonated well with me. Besides, because I have been looking for World War I books (though those with African characters - fiction or non-fiction) to celebrate the centenary of the beginning of that senseless war, I was very much fulfilled by this. Faulks patiently shows the absurdity and stupidity of war. How man descended into the lowest pits of his wickedness and became like an animal; how the conscience and nerves of millions of soldiers were destroyed; how civilisation is just a thin layer of reason and could be crossed at any time in that rabid search for supremacy. In this novel, Faulks paints a picture of war different from the showboating we see on the screens, the ignorance of the young and the old who clamour for war and yet are ignorant of what it actually involves only to have their disillusion broken into illusion and insanity and end up in mad-houses for the rest of their lives. If a novel can end the quest and zeal and love for senselessness and war, Birdsong can. But unfortunately, no novel can. Man is such an animal.
April: Note that a full review of all these books would be posted here on this blog in the coming months. Currently, I am reading The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. In addition to this, I hope to read the Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and 1984 by George Orwell. The latter is the book for the month of April and should I read it would be my second reading in three years (first read in 2011).

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Writers Project of Ghana's Book Discussion with Mawuli Adzei (with Pictures)

The Writers Project of Ghana has a book club it prefers to call The Book and Discussion Club which meets once every month to discuss the selected text for the month. The Book and Discussion Club has selected and read several books since its formation in 2011. Last month's (March) book was Mawuli Adzei's collection of poems Testament of the Seasons. When information reached Dr Adzei - author of Taboo - that we were going to read and discuss his book, he volunteered to be present.

It was always going to be tricky discussing and interrogating the work of a writer in his or her presence. In his absence you could always say whatever you like and this was the first time it was happening. The Book Club has played host to some authors before, though their works were not under discussion at the time of the meeting. We have had Binyavanga Wainaina and Kojo Laing visiting us and reading to us their works. (Note that this discussion is different from the monthly Book Reading WPG organises in collaboration with the Goethe Institute). However, Dr Adzei's presence did not prevent the interrogation of his works. He believes in the reader developing his or her own reaction to his works and interpreting it in any way he or she deems applicable. As usual, it was fun. The evening began with the author reading some of his poems from all the sections in the book. This was followed by the discussion.

Dr Mawuli Adzei reading from Testament of the Seasons
Novisi asking Dr Adzei a question
Novisi getting his book autographed
Nancy and Amma
In between Dr Adzei and Nancy 
Sheilla or Charlotte (? - this twins!) and Agnes were there
Our book for the month of April is 1984 by George Orwell. This is a classic book about current events. It is universally important. It is the book that gave birth to Newspeak, Doublespeak, and Big Brother. We will meet on April 29, 2014 (we meet on the last Tuesday of every month) to discuss this book. If you want to participate, kindly contact me.
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