Wednesday, September 14, 2016

303. Black Ass by A. Igoni Barrett

"Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep." With this foreboding line Igoni Barrett ushers the reader into the complex and funny world of Furo Wariboko who woke up one morning to find himself transformed into a Caucasian with a black-patched bottom, green eyes and red hair. However, this furious instantaneous genetic mutation did not affect his speech and so Furo looks like a foreigner but speaks like a Nigerian. How will Furo, a young graduate born and bred in a low-income suburb of Lagos and attending his first interview on the first day of this startling transmogrification, navigate the dangerous curves and turns of this identity quagmire? How will he convince people of his Nigerian identiy, when his looks rejects his name and his documents reject his looks? How will he face his family and tell them that he is the Furo they knew the night before? How will they reconcile the two Furos into his new physiologically transmogrified body?

Black Ass (2015) is a social experiment in identity, specifically what defines identity. It examines such factors as the role of skin complexion and language in establishing or conferring and confirming identity. Assesses whether identity is conferred and confirmed by public documents or by the agreement of the majority. It also examines the classical relationships between Africans and Caucasians. Finally, through an eponymous character, Black Ass scratches the surface of gender identity.

Igoni Barrett in this novel shows that one can live within two identities - one that his features confirm and the other conferred by official documents. This is different from dual citizenship where there are documents to confer both and, in some cases, physical features to confirm both. No one who saw Furo Wariboko, after his change, agreed that he was a Nigerian. Even when they heard him speak like a Nigerian, they were ready to agree that he had done well to learn the language and, perhaps, had lived among them for a long time. Thus, in the identity-confirmation tug-of-war  genetic characteristics outweigh acquired characteristics. However, for those willing to work with him and suspend the belief that Wariboko is European at least as long as this suspension of the visual confirmation of identity works to their benefit, for such individuals as Arinze, proof of identity by official documents was enough. Consequently, the majority may disagree with one's identity but the mere possession of an official document is enough to confer a new identity and override the genetic confirmation. Hence by obtaining a Nigerian passport, Furo Wariboko became Nigerian, at least to the people who matter. Though this was not to destroy, in any way, the manner in which the majority of the people related to him.

In discussing the relationship between blacks and whites, or of how Africans relate to Whites on the former's land, Igoni Barrett shows that such a relationship has many faces. One aspect of this relationship, which is sometimes the predominant one and usually shown by the middle class, is when the African is quick to offer help or favour to a Caucasian with no ulterior motive. In this kind of relationship, the African sees the Caucasian as a weakling who has not the capacity to survive in Africa's tedious, hectic, and multifariously demanding conditions. In fact, the African is quick to sympathise with the Caucasian when he sees him struggling underneath the unforgiving African Sun. It is this kind of relationship that got Furo, who after sneaking away from home in his new skin, more favours than he would have otherwise received had he been in his old black skin. For instance, on his way to the interview when he realised he was running late, he was able to rely on his street-smartness to get a lady to offer him money for transportation by lying about his broken down car. Ordinarily, this same tale would not have elicited any sympathy had he been black as the lady would have considered it a lie. She would chew on the 'car' bit for a long time not that she does not believe a Nigerian can own such a car, in fact she has seen a lot to know its possibility; however, she will not be able to see how this Nigerian will own a car and not have the means to seek help from friends and family when that car is broken down. This might be interpreted in many ways: Inferiority bestowed on the Nigerian; or even the illogical trust the African have for the Caucasian, but not for his fellow African. However, this could also mean the African trust the resourcefulness of the African to get out of predicaments without help; hence seeking help in such a low-difficulty level predicament, when all features point to a born and bred Nigerian, will be considered to be an anomaly that can only arouse suspicion.

Another example of this relationship was when Furo at the job interview, which was hardly an interview for him, was offered a position higher than what he had applied for when the owner realise how easy and beneficial it would be to capitalise on Furo's appearance and characteristics: a Whiteman with Nigerian attitude. Though this particular favour was not without a future reward, the offer itself would not have been provided had he not looked Caucasian. Another clearer example of this relationship was when Furo went to a buka to eat. The food seller had given her more food than he had purchased and later he had run away with the money. However, she was quick to forego this theft when Furo, inadvertently, visited her again. Yet this same food seller had fought her fellow Nigerian, the melee which created an avenue for Furo to escape with the money in the first place. Finally, Furo was to be rescued from the street by Syreeta who will willingly provide Furo with food, shelter and sex. Will Syreeta have offered these multiple benefits had Furo been in his black skin?

Another aspect of the relationship is when the help or favour is offered but with the intention of future or immediate gain. Here, the African offer his or her service with the intention of extracting some form of payment, usually not required, not direct, most often a surcharge. Furo encountered a lot of such instances as a Caucasian. For instance, even though Syreeta might have initially used Furo to get back at his Big Man, and Furo had also given her a limit on his stay at her residence, later we were to see what was in it for Syreeta. The more obvious examples were the service providers who cajole and wheedle and through perfected shenanigans extort money from their clients. An example is the taxi drivers whose fares for Caucasians, and foreigners in general, were about four times the normal charge; government officials who take advantage of their position to exact their pound of flesh from foreigners when they see them hovering indecisively on the borders of the law such as the LASTMA who accosted them for making the wrong turning; and those who will give appellations, will boot-lick, and will offer all obsequiousness necessary to extract a Naira from the pocket. Unfortunately, the latter (making a Naira from the next pocket) is not directed only at foreigners but is intensified towards them as they are seen to be very sympathetic and generous. Thus, people expected him to tip more and to complain less when been cheated.

As further proof for this kind of relationship towards Caucasians, whilst working for Arinze, Furo was to receive several offers from their clients who saw the unique advantage of having Furo work for them, again it was his European looks and Nigerian attitude these folks wanted. This sort of relationship was usually exhibited by the low-income and the upper middle income individuals who run their own businesses and are quick to spot an opportunity.

Sometimes the expression of these relationships are gendered. For instance, all of Syreeta's close friends were married to European immigrants and so she saw Furo as the best way of improving her social status since her economic status had already been taken care of by her Oga (Big Man). Later, it became somewhat clear that she had offered to help Furo, after Igoni had rejected to do so, because of her subtle need for mixed-race children, since such children are already guaranteed perks that would remain dreams for poor Black Nigerians. Or even perhaps she genuinely loved him and would have left her Oga, which was a possibility. However, most of the needs of his male beneficent-seekers were of ways to upgrade their economic status, like Victor Ikhide, a guy he met in the queue during the interview who wanted to befriend him so he can help him, if possible, visit his brother abroad. This latter behaviour by most Africans who, subliminally, confer superior status to Caucasians and inferior status to Africans, was all too common in the novel. For example when together with his boss they went to meet a client, Furo was perceived to be the boss, for the daughter of the client could not envision an African employing an European. After all have they not been saving us ever since they discovered us?

An extension of this superiority-inferiority dichotomy was expressed in the way people stared at Furo especially when they found him in places economically designated for locals. The people struggled to comprehend how a member of the 'makers of civilisation' tribe, the people who make and own Things could walk and live among the poor, talk like them, and himself suffer like those for whom poverty seemed to be a bona fide property. Sometimes in an attempt to feign disinterest, they pretend they have not seen him at all. And when they probe and find out that beneath the white skin and beyond the green eyes lies a man who was completely Nigerian, they buckle.

Though this is the first African novel I have read that touches on the aspect of gender identity dealing with transsexualism, it did not go far for me. First we meet Igoni as a man when Furo sought help from him, then as a woman. Later we are to learn that he is undergoing a transformation and that that transformation might have stalled
It is easier to be than to become. [301]
For though Igoni had developed breasts, her other male features still exists. Barrett only scratched the surface of Igoni's story. Perhaps the results of using the first-person narrative style when he talked about Igoni, so that she/he revealed what she/he wants to share. It was not clear how his/her family accepted the transformation; how he/she worked around the issue in his/her work among others. Igoni Barrett threw away the chance to set tongues wagging and minds thinking. Yet, it is entirely possible that this was not Barrett's intention. He just wanted to write a story and it happened that one of the characters was a transsexual just as Furo was straight. Sometimes readers expect too much - a writer must just write and be his own voice and not the voice of any group or ideology.

Besides this, there are two other issues that got me scratching my head. Furo's behaviour to his colleagues (especially Tosin, to whom he was warming) when he was ready to move on to a more lucrative job was incomprehensible and difficult to reconcile with his previous actions. Yes, he took advantage of people, but his condition called for desperate survival measures and there was no overt indication from his past to suggest that he can act in such manner. In addition, his relationship with Igoni was sudden. There was almost no preceding events (apart from the two introductory occasions they met). How this developed was not clear. It was as if the author just wanted the two to meet for something to occur to resolve the plot. The meeting could have been prevented though in the end one will understand why Barrett wanted it to happen; even then it could have been non-sexual, but does it matter? This created a feeling of a rush towards the end.

The second issue is that one kept expecting something momentous from Furo's mysterious sister. She was described as an intelligent but self-serving and intriguing young girl. Set-up like this, the reader's expectations were raised: would she wreak the final ruin on the Wariboko family? The reader is given a snippet into this mystery, which reflected the craze for internet attention among today's young people (the millennials), when she used the search for her brother to attain Twitter celebrity status, gaining followers here and there. But then again, one expected more, especially when she was bubbly and careless with risks.

Reading Black Ass as a metaphor, Furo could be taken for the white man who descended onto the continent, took advantage of its resources - natural and human - it provided, used them mercilessly and discarded them.

However, I enjoyed the ending. Barrett leaves the reader thinking and reconstructing his own ending. It is always interesting when the author include the reader in the story. This is a funny and complex book that will get the reading community talking. This is the kind of books we should be writing and reading. They are bold, they attempt to do what is not common. They are not just narrating a reality, they create realities and, take it or leave it, they don't care about your capacity to accept it or not. This is worth the read.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2017 Now Open for Entries

One of the flagship projects of Commonwealth Writers, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is now open for entries, with an international judging panel comprising judges from each of the five Commonwealth regions: Zukiswa Wanner (Africa); Mahesh Rao (Asia); Jacqueline Baker (Canada and Europe), Jacob Ross (Caribbean) and Vilsoni Hereniko (Pacific).

The chair of this year’s panel is the novelist Kamila Shamsie, who is the author of six novels, including Burnt Shadows, which has been translated into more than 20 languages and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and A God in Every Stone which was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
“One of the pleasures of short stories is the potential for encountering both breadth and concentrated depth of writing over the space of just a few stories. In the case of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the geographic range of the entrants, as well as the prize's track record of attracting extraordinary writing, turns that potential into near-certainty.” Kamila Shamsie, Chair, 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize
The prize is for the best piece of unpublished short fiction. Entries translated into English from other languages are also eligible. Writers from across the Commonwealth can enter their stories online at here.
“As well as the scope of the Prize to unearth truly ‘less heard’ voices, it’s also one of only a handful of international prizes open to unpublished writers, as well as published writers, with £15,000 in prize money. And we believe that it’s the only major international prize which invites writers to enter in languages other than English – Bengali, Portuguese, Samoan and Swahili this year.” Lucy Hannah, Programme Manager, Commonwealth Writers
Commonwealth Writers is delighted to continue its partnership with Granta Magazine to give the overall and regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize the opportunity to have their story edited and published by Granta online.
Notes to Editors
  1. The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is part of Commonwealth Writers, the cultural programme of the Commonwealth Foundation. It is awarded for the best piece of unpublished short fiction (2000-5000 words). Regional winners receive £2,500 and the Overall Winner receives £5,000. Short stories translated into English from other languages are also eligible. Translators receive additional prize money. 
  2. Commonwealth Writers develops and connects writers across the world. It believes that well-told stories can help people make sense of events, engage with others, and take action to bring about change. Responsive and proactive, it is committed to tackling the challenges faced by writers in different regions and working with local and international partners to identify and deliver projects. Its activities take place in Commonwealth countries, but its community is
  3. Commonwealth Foundation is a development organisation with an international remit and reach, uniquely situated at the interface between government and civil society. It develops the capacity of civil society to act together and learn from each other to engage with the institutions that shape people’s lives. It strives for more effective, responsive and accountable governance with civil society participation, which contributes to improved development
  4. Granta is a quarterly literary magazine of new writing. Published in book format, each issue includes stories, essays, memoir, poetry and art centred around a theme. Throughout its long history, Granta has published the most significant writers of our time featuring work by writers including Julian Barnes, Edwidge Danticat, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Santiago Roncagliolo, David Mitchell, Lorrie Moore, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson and more. In recent years, the magazine has expanded to include foreign editions – in Spain, Italy, Brazil, Norway, China, Finland, Sweden, Portugal and Bulgaria.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Interview with Tendai Huchu, Author of The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician

Tendai Huchu (Source)
Today, I bring you an interview (a discussion) with Tendai Huchu. I interviewed him when his first book The Hairdresser of Harare came out. He has published his second book: The Maestro, The Magistrate, and The Mathematician. I caught up with him via Facebook and this is what ensued.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: So how did The Hairdresser of Harare do? And how was it accepted in Zimbabwe noting the subject matter?

Tendai Huchu: The Hairdresser isn't a book I think much about now. I have moved on as an artist. It was well received in Zim. First print run sold out. Good reviews. It was a popular read.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: OK. Great. I'm surprised you say you think not much about it. Is it that you are more concerned with your new work?

Tendai Huchu: Yeah, I am doing newer and, hopefully, more interesting stuff. I have/am evolving. For me, the next project is always more exciting than the last. I imagine it is the same for all writers.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: Yes. You always have to focus on your current project and allow the last one to live its own life. Your second book fascinates me. I was wondering what will be contained in its pages. What's this book about?

Tendai Huchu: It is hard for me to distill a 90,000 word text into a soundbite, particularly when it has no real central theme. But the stuff that interested me most in making the text was the formal stuff, mechanical things to do with structure, and, of course, playing with genre and also trying to create a work that was ambiguous and contradictory. This makes little sense if you have not yet read the book, but I hope you will one day.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: This sounds appetising. I'm no stranger to stranger literature. In fact experimental literature is itself novel. So will you consider your text experimental?

Tendai Huchu: I wouldn't necessarily consider myself an experimental novelist. I don't think I wield the necessary pyrotechnics to assume such a designation, rather the form the text was created try to buttress the ideas in the story I was putting forward. For example, the text contains 3 novellas, and this was only because my initial attempts at creating a unified, conventional novel failed, and the only way I could get the three characters to work was by highlighting their differences. It was a process of simplification, but that comes with its own complications, the language and style of the separate stories then had to be altered radically, the visual presentation of the text on the page itself had to be looked into. If there is any innovation in the text, it is merely a response to difficulties I encountered in writing the damned thing.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: Your response piques my interest. After all, it is in adversity that we innovate. Your response reminds me of Doreen Baingana's linked stories Tropical Fish. You said earlier that the story (like Murakami's novel Kafka on the Shore) has no central theme how then were you able to sustain the writing to reach a meaningful conclusion?

Tendai Huchu: The conclusion is part of the play with ambiguity that I had going on. So for long stretches of the novel you have these disparate elements in play, but then at the denouement the camera zooms out and you see how these events come together and have been orchestrated, but only once you step out of the limited, chaotic experience of the individual characters. You also come to realise that the real hero of the story is someone else. I am talking round the book here because I am avoiding spoilers, but the idea is that whatever position the text takes must be undermined by an equal and opposite truth. Thus, I now do a U-turn and advance the argument that the book actually has a theme and is tightly plotted. It is not a literary novel but a genre novel of a very specific kind.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: This sounds interesting and I look forward to reading it one day. However, how's distribution of your books like? Getting books distributed in Africa is difficult*.

Tendai Huchu: It is published in Zimbabwe by amaBooks and in Nigeria by Farafina. The problems of book distribution in Africa are well documented, but we are really talking simple market forces here, nothing more. It's not as though there are hordes of readers demanding my work across the continent. My publishers will be lucky if they so much as break even with this book. That's the harsh reality. Why would a publisher anywhere else in Africa try to sell my book when they already have a hard time selling works by their own local authors? I sound pessimistic and for this I apologise but the future of the book industry is intimately linked to the future of the general economy. You put more money in people's pockets and they have more leisure time, they might indulge and engage with this art form. The state has the resources to build libraries and stock them, there is another market for publishers. Combine this with mass literacy and the industry has a shot. We have to be realistic and tie the future of this art form to inescapable power of capitalism. Books are just another product of that system. Nothing more, nothing less.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman: Thanks Tendai for this discussion.
*Conducted this interview before I got a copy of this book. My copy is published by Farafina and the Writers Project of Ghana has copies for sale.

Friday, September 02, 2016

302. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, written over a twelve-year period (1928-1940) and published posthumously (1967), is a fantastic representation of phantasmagorical events that began with the portentous prediction whose realisation spelt doom for the entire inhabitants of Moscow, creating knots and entanglements that mere rationalisation was unable to coherently unwound or meaningfully disentangle. 

The Great Deceiver, who in this case appeared as a great Magician, entered Moscow and, chancing upon a meeting of two literary enthusiasts at Patriarch's Ponds discussing the unending debate of the presence or otherwise of God, began a performance. The two self-professed atheists were strong in their conviction of a non-existent God and proffered argument after argument and hypothesis after hypothesis to support their thesis, until the arrival of Prof. Woland (the devil) and his retinue (Azazello, Behemoth the manlike-cat, Koroviev, Abadonna, and Hella, who were slowly unveiled and unleashed onto Moscow). Upon hearing Berlioz and Bezdomny's discussion, Prof Woland, like Descartes (in his ontological argument for the existence of God), countered the arguments of a non-existent God, citing the story of Pontius Pilate and his encounter with Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus Christ). The two literary enthusiasts were baffled when, in narrating this story, Prof Woland insisted that he was present when Yeshua Ha-Notsri was brought to Pontius Pilate. However, since a logician's mind cannot accept that a man can live to a thousand years, they became furious and openly doubted him. They became even more flabbergasted when he later added that he had even met Kant and here they, with the backing of their knowledge, challenged him.

Worried, and in need of a performance to support his claim, Woland prophesied Berlioz's death and its cause - a cause so impossible that it was laughable and so intricate that it can only happen if the purveyor is its executor. And it was the realisation of this prophecy that will drive Bezdomny into a frenetic chase of Woland and his first two disciples (Azazello and Behemoth) throughout Moscow ending him as the asylum's first victim. 

Bulgakov might have written this as a stand against the elite who considered atheism as a mark of intellectual distinction and logic as the sole source of authority. And yet, the devil's argument for the existence of God was based on deduction, in that if God did not exist then definitely he, the devil, must not exist, for it is impossible for a thing to exist without its dipole and to admit that there is no God is implicitly an admittance of the non-existence of the devil. One cannot hold onto one and disregard the other. The push-pull yin-yang is required for balance. 

Another issue Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita exposes is the greed of the time. Through this mysticism imbued fantasy, where nothing is black and white, Bulgakov - through the actions of Woland and his retinue - exposed the festering greed of Muscovites at the time, which will later send scores into uncontrolled hysteria and psychosis. Woland and his team manged to unleash mass psychosis on the people, testing their power to rationalise beyond its elastic limit. For instance, for Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy - Chairman of the House Committee, it was his greed to make profit off the back of Woland that led him into trouble when he was turned in for having foreign currency in his possession. Stepan Bogdanovich Likhodeyev obtained a multi-bedroom apartment with Berlioz by denouncing others as spies and by that he found himself teleported into Yalta. The majority of Muscovites fell for the Woland's black magic, during his show at the Variety Theatre, out of greed. Willingly they changed their dresses for what they considered to be more sparkling and pretty; they scrambled for the ten rouble notes, which turned out to be product labels. And one, in a bout of epistemic arrogance, got his head pulled off and later refixed.

Bulgakov also perhaps sought to illustrate the nature of a controlled economy as observed in the criminality of speculating or dealing in foreign currencies and the high-demand and low-supply of accommodation, creating demi-gods.

Bulgakov's novel has no recognition of time dimensions. It fluidly merges them. Time today becomes time yesterday or time tomorrow and not even two thousand years can separate events. Events merge into each other as time merges and the worlds collide so that Matthew the Levite, a follower of Yeshua Ha-Notsri, reappears in Moscow with a Message from God to the devil concerning how he should treat the Master and her love, Margarita. Also, Satan's story of Pontius Pilate becomes the story the Master has been writing but which Moscow's literary elite, perhaps for its circumlocutory support for the existence of God, denounced in several articles - each more vitriolic than the previous - leading to his mental breakdown and his subsequent incarceration and the breakdown of his burgeoning relationship with the already-married Margarita. This saving grace of the Master and Margarita by the devil can be because of the Master's belief in the  existence of God, and by inference of the devil.

Our concept of good and evil and of the nature of the devil is somewhat challenged when God asked the devil to give peace to the Master and Margarita:
'He has read the master's writings,' said Matthew the Levite, 'and asks you take the master with you and reward him by granting him peace. Would that be hard for you to do, spirit of evil?'
'Nothing is hard for me to do,' replied Woland, 'as you well know.' He paused for a while and then added: 'Why don't you take him yourself, to the light?' [406]
This is a fantastic book, literally. Once in a while the narrator shows himself to the reader, which was not a bother since it was few and far between. Reading this in Russian would have been fun as most often the names of Russian characters seek to add a layer of meaning to the story. One bother, and this is with all Russian novels, is the names. The names are long and sometimes difficult to relate the long versions with the short versions making it difficult to keep the characters in mind.
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