Friday, July 29, 2016

The 2016 Man Booker Dozen - Should we Worry?

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

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

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

Thursday, July 28, 2016

New Books Acquired

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

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

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Discussion: New African Literary Books

It is always easy to come across posts that discusses or 'reviews' newly published books. However, in most cases these reviews are skewed to western audience and so most of the books listed are from America and Europe, with one or two African writers thrown into the mix to give it a semblance of wide coverage. However, most of the names that are thrown into the mix are Africans who are fortunate enough to have their works distributed in the UK and/or US. Whereas the literary output from the continent cannot be compared with those coming from the rest of the world in terms of numbers, they are more than insignificant.

Hence, kindly share with me  - with links and if possible your review (in the comments section) - of new African books you have come across. By new I am referring to books published since January 1, 2016 to present. You can even stretch it back a few months but it should not be more than twelve months since publication. So effectively books should have been published no farther in time than 25 July 2015.

Lets share and celebrate African writing. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

298. Born on Tuesday by Elnathan John

I have criticized the Caine Prize for pandering to a certain trope of stories. I can recite the number of times that the 'the poor/refugee boy waiting for a miracle from the West and killing people or finding dead bodies in the interim' has won the Caine Prize. In fact so severe was my aversion to this trend that I altogether stopped reading the short stories. It was as if there was a hidden agenda and every story must conform. In fact, I felt justified when in 2012 the chair of judges said they will look 'beyond the more stereotypical narrative.' And Elnathan John has been shortlisted twice - 2013 and 2015. The story, Bayan Layi, which developed into Born on a Tuesday was shortlisted in 2013. By 2013 I had lost all interest in the prize and had stopped reading the stories for my Short Story Mondays.

When the Writers Project of Ghana selected this book for its book for June, I did not know what to expect. I had no knowledge that it had developed from a short story I would have easily considered 'stereotypical' three years ago. Having not read the short story I cannot judge the transformation. However, I must say that Elnathan John showed a lot of maturity and control in developing the short story into a novel, which could easily have become a 'pity party' of atrocious proportions. In Markus Zusak's book Death declared 'I am haunted by humans'. This is because no fiction can accurately depict man's actions  when he is at his worst and any attempt at achieving this ends up with a story filled with scatology and horror that could keep your eyes open for months. And what motif to provide a fast route to such horror than religious conflict and terrorism in a country known for these vices.

Born on a Tuesday, written in the first person, follows the story of Dantala - later Ahmad - from his journey from Bayan Layi to Sokoto and his gradual conversion from a drug imbuing young boy under the control of a benevolent gang-leader to his complete immersion into Islam under the guidance of his benefactor, Sheikh. Through Ahmad's narrative we are introduced to the development of religious fanaticism among sects and the role of politics in religious conflicts. Elnathan treated his subject matter so masterfully - explaining certain religious rights and phrases - that I began to wonder which part of Nigeria he lives or comes from. His description of the relationship between the force (police and military) and the people, the people and their politicians, and between the people and their religious leader was mind-boggling. We observe how religious factionalism develops and how easy it is to whip up religious and political sentiments to the benefit of the politburo and how the whimsicality of the people plays a role in this. In this novel, we encounter a fanatic Yoruba Islam-convert whose sect is bent on implementing the extreme form of religious interpretation, a philanthropist who uses his philanthropy to gain popularity to catapult him into a political position, politicians whose care of the people is to win votes by all means necessarily without bringing any development to the people, and a people whose helplessness has made them vulnerable to their environment.

The author showed how complex life is and the impact of politico-religious conflicts on the socio-economic lives of ordinary people. In this novel, the author sought to show rather than say, so that it did not fall into the trap of being preachy. Though narrated in Dantala's peculiar language, whom we are told was learning the English language, one does not encounter the difficulty usually found in novels of such characteristics. 

Born on a Tuesday is an interesting book worth the read.
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