Thirsting for Sunlight: Testing for Light, Tasting of Myth | A Review by Isidore Diala

Christopher Okigbo 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight. By Obi Nwakanma. Suffolk, UK: James Currey, 2017. pp xxviii+276. £17.99, paperback. (ISBN 978-1-84701-179-4)

Christopher Okigbo’s generally acknowledged charm, intrepid exploits in sports, breathless adventures, penchant for imaginative self-portraits, gallantry as well as his enchanting, if often misunderstood, poetry rendered him larger than life in the imagination of his contemporaries and cut him out as a virtual figure of myth. Countless colourful anecdotes about Okigbo’s life and his lionization in a folk war song upon his heroic death in battle during the Nigeria-Biafra war played a role in the creation and sustenance of that mythic image.

Obi Nwakanma’s biography of Okigbo, Christopher Okigbo 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight begins the process of understanding and demystifying the poet. Thus, Nwakanma identifies the primary aim of the biography as “placing Okigbo in time” (x), no doubt by providing a compelling account of the ascertainable facts of Okigbo’s life and death and subjecting them to sober reflection, as opposed to the ethereal light of myth. However, by casting himself in the obvious image of a worshipful acolyte at the enchanted feet of the great poet with the declared intriguing purpose not only of locating Okigbo in time and place but “of clothing him with spirit” (xi), Nwakanma can perhaps only ultimately reify the canonical myths of Okigbo’s life and reinforce our image of an inscrutable poet.

Thirsting for Sunlight is a powerful portrait of the poet as a rebel. Rigorously researched, breathless in its revelations, stylistically absorbing and often humorous, the biography is driven by the crucial insight that particular “influences . . . conspired to shape [Okigbo’s] life and poetry” (x). In eight chapters, Nwakanma zealously scrutinizes both Okigbo’s cultural and Catholic family backgrounds, circumstances of his birth, his Igbo culture, education, his astonishing reading in the world’s literature, and Nigeria’s volatile political landscape for clues of formative literary influences. Notably, Nwakanma’s focus is the totality of contexts and movements, cultural, intellectual, political, indigenous, and international that nurtured Okigbo’s consciousness and art. On occasion, though, the handling of international politics seems rather artful.

Following a chronology of events in Okigbo’s life, thirteen photographs in black and white, two maps and the Okigbo family tree, the first chapter of Nwakanma’s book focuses on the first fifteen years of his growing up in his hometown of Ojoto. The careful and detailed mapping of the geographical terrain of Ojoto pales in significance only beside the even ampler examination of Igbo worldview, especially the worship of the river goddess Idoto, which Okigbo’s poetry so powerfully brought to world consciousness. Okigbo’s famed priesthood to Idoto is fully set in the context of the Igbo belief system of reincarnation and presented as instructive for the poet’s self-portrait as a prodigal. But Nwakanma is keen to foreground Okigbo’s “double consciousness,” and highlights the equally deep impact of Catholicism on Okigbo’s early life as the son of a father who was a pioneering Catholic schoolteacher. Nwakanma clearly considers the death of Okigbo’s mother Anna when he was five years old the single most important experience of his early life capable of explaining his entire complex personality from his remorseless womanising to his daredevilry; a mindset Nwakanma hints at as a search for that lost ‘mother’.

Okigbo’s Western education at the elite Government College Umuahia and thereafter at the University College Ibadan, where he studied Classics, constitutes the main focus of the second and third chapters respectively of the biography. Nwakanma’s attention is still keenly focused on Okigbo’s cosmopolitan background and the hybridity at the core of his writing. He is equally fascinated by Okigbo’s leisurely attitude towards his school work which was in sharp contrast to his outstanding intellectual gifts and wide reading. Nwakanma highlights the deep impact of some of the extraordinary individuals such as William Simpson, Saburi Biobaku, Charles W. Low and Ben Obumselu that Okigbo met at Umuahia and Ibadan on his intellectual and artistic growth. Okigbo’s political discipleship to Dr Chike Obi, a mathematician at the University College, Ibadan, gave him a first-hand knowledge of the distinctive terrain of Nigerian politics and no doubt prepared him for the central roles he played later in national events. In this book, the crucial subtext of the biography is the temper and potentials of Okigbo’s generation and their contribution in shaping the nature of Okigbo’s poetic fervour. By constantly linking Okigbo’s career with those of his contemporaries and providing regular and extensive catalogues (occasionally repeated) of Okigbo’s peers and their profiles, Nwakanma aims not merely to set in relief the catholicity of Okigbo’s friendships but even more importantly to foreground his thirst for the limelight by imagining the poet as a nexus of connecting lines of intellectual influences. Thirsting for Sunlight is a multi-layered narrative of the poet’s generation and times, with the poet at the centre.

Nwakanma’s characterisation of Okigbo as a deviant is at the core of the biography. His habitual tantrums as a child and deviations from family norms, as well as his disregard for authority, demonstrate for Nwakanma the enigmatic temperament of a genius. Typically indulged and granted generous concessions, Okigbo trudged through school with modest grades and had to re-write his degree examination at the University of Ibadan before he passed it. Nwakanma painstakingly shows how Okigbo’s contempt for the conventional and orthodox and his bohemian attitude to life meant that his careers in the civil service and in business ended disastrously. Okigbo resigned his appointment as Regional Sales Manager at Nigeria Tobacco; left his position as Trainee Manager at the United African Company; was sacked from his post as Administrative Officer in the Federal Ministry of Information and Research because he ran a private company while still in the civil service. At any rate, his business enterprise was soon to go bankrupt too because he lacked both the competence and commitment required to succeed in a business venture. Leisurely and self-indulgent, Okigbo clearly envisaged work as the primordial curse.

The rest of the book highlights the paradox of Okigbo’s discovery of poetry through adversity, the growth of his art, and both the multicultural character of his work as well as his increasing involvement in national and African political experience. Offered a job as a Latin teacher and Vice Principal of Fiditi Grammar School by his friend and principal of the school, Alex Ajayi, Okigbo gradually recovered a zest for life and the therapeutic value of poetry after the trauma of the loss of his job in the civil service. Nwakanma emphasises Okigbo’s discovery of the Muse of poetry in Fiditi and notes the influence of Virgil and T.S. Eliot, and a reflection of his childhood experiences on Okigbo’s earliest poetry.

Leaving Fiditi in 1960 for the new University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he worked as acting University Librarian, Okigbo was unusually absorbed by the challenges of his new position (even while his womanising became even more adventurous). Greater access to international poetry and the intellectual vibrancy of the university environment had a beneficent effect on his art. Nwakanma especially emphasizes the influence of the Welsh poet Peter Thomas on Okigbo’s poetry at this period. Similarly, on Okigbo’s return to Ibadan in January 1962 as the West African Regional Manager for Cambridge University Press, the intellectual stimulation provided by the university of Ibadan and the intense cultural and political developments in the city led to the maturation of Okigbo’s art. The Mbari Club played a pivotal role in the cultural life of the city and Okigbo soon became its secretary as well as the editor of Mbari publications. 1962 saw the publication of his seminal collections, Heavensgate and Limits.

Nwakanma examines in considerable details the national political crises leading to the military coup and the counter coup of 1966, and remarks Okigbo’s involvement with these issues through his association with the key figures, such as Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, one of the leaders of the first coup d’etat in 1966. The biographer documents the gory details of the pogrom against Igbo people resident in northern Nigeria, the onset of the civil war, Okigbo’s audacious undertaking to procure arms for Biafra, and his enlistment in the Biafran Army. Nwakanma’s speculations on why Okigbo enlisted into the army are legion and insightful and his documentations of Okigbo’s gallantry as a guerrilla soldier, fighting without training and in defiance of personal safety and conventional rules of warfare, are impassioned. The portrait of Okigbo as a soldier is a culmination of the colourful legend of the hero, hitherto believed and publicised in the historization of the war. The headstrong child who risked death in jumping from a tall tree for the adulation of his peers; the outlaw with a penchant for raiding the school orchard even when he was not particular about oranges; the stuntsman toying with electrocution in the name of a sentimental attachment to an ancient ghost radio: all these anticipate the daring Biafran guerrilla soldier killed in a lonely confrontation with an armoured tank.

Thirsting for Sunlight is a boon to the reader of Okigbo’s poetry even when Nwakanma claims he “does not aim to raise critical or philosophical questions about the value of the literary text” (x). The crucial contexts of many of the poems are exemplarily highlighted. For example, Nwakanma’s inscription of Okigbo’s anguished recollection of his mother’s funeral as the background to the solemn sequence, “The Passage” in Heavensgate, enriches our understanding of the poem by foregrounding its autobiographical source; he thus clarifies the intensity of the poem’s sobriety through his evocation of the gripping image of the poet as he “grapples with the terrifying scene as it unfolds in a child’s vision” (11). Crucially also, by Nwakanma’s acceptance of the challenge of reading up the enormous intellectual background that nurtured Okigbo’s art, he is typically able to guide Okigbo’s readers. Many intriguing phrases and allusions are contextualised. “The stone surface” of Siren Limits, for example, is traced to the architecture of Cambridge House, Ibadan. Besides, some of the enchanted figures of romantic legend in Okigbo’s poetry are given a local habitation and historical names. Kepkanly is clothed in human flesh. The nature of Okigbo’s mystical relationship to Idoto is examined in details, with Okigbo revealed as the reincarnation of his maternal uncle who had been the priest of the deity, a duty the poet inherited; Okigbo’s aunt Eunice is identified as a source of his passion for music, and an element of his satiric wit is traced to the historically ascertainable character, Jandum. Nwakanma places Upandru in this category, identifying him as “Up Andrew,” a “travelling minstrel,” “a gifted, handicapped performer from Achina” whom he likens to Tiresias, the blind prophet, and considers a model of the prophetic element in Okigbo’s poetry (26). However, unusually, Nwakanma cites no reference to authenticate this kind of claim.1 Occasionally also the reader is offered a poem’s background as its meaning.

Moreover, one feels that such statements as “Hart Crane[’s] . . . influence is also obvious in Okigbo’s poetry” (203); “Okigbo’s admiration for this poet [Tchicaya U Tam’si] is reflected in the echoes of U Tam’si’s Bushfire [Feu de brousse] in Okigbo’s Path of Thunder written at that period” (222) and many other such claims would have been more insightful with even the slightest substantiation. And when Nwakanma pronounces Peter Thomas’s poetry the irrefragable source of the title of Okigbo’s sequence, Heavensgate (158), he ignores Okigbo’s considerable critical heritage, and especially the exemplary labours of some of Okigbo’s most distinguished scholars such as Obumselu and Dan Izevbaye on the subject in their own published works.

Thirsting for Sunlight is a poorly proofread work. Repetitive, digressive, littered with grammatical blunders and misprints, it is also rather indulgent in its attitude to its subject. It should be noted that Nwakanma’s exaltation of Okigbo’s gallantry does not completely erase his hero’s thousand other faces. After all, Nwakanma’s relentless documentation of Okigbo’s womanising is a fixation perhaps only comparable to Okigbo’s own obsession with sexuality. Pleading the deep impact of Okigbo’s early loss of his mother and making the Beat poets the flagrant offenders for teaching Okigbo their radical moral vision, Nwakanma recurrently invokes Freud to no avail to absolve Okigbo of the stain of what this biographer calls his “immoderate infidelities” (117). For sure, some of the many women that Okigbo toyed with, even when they were sincerely devoted to him, are unlikely to be among the entranced devotees at Nwakanma’s Okigbo shrine.

Many of Nwakanma’s interviewees for this book strain to indulge Okigbo even in complete disregard of evidence pointing otherwise: Nwakanma’s biography of Okigbo perpetuates his myth. The reader is asked to accept Okigbo’s irresponsible extravagance as “disdain for money” (185); his aversion for enduring relationships with women is presented as an “affirmation of the transcendence of the imagination” (190); and we are asked to see his casual indiscriminate liaisons as “democratic, determined by neither class nor status” (190) and, moreover, as “emblematic of his courage” (161). Even with his wife Safinat Atta, the Igbira princess he wooed for long because her family had deep reservations about Okigbo’s lifestyle, and their daughter, Obiageli, Okigbo preferred a long-distance arrangement because, according to his biographer, Okigbo “felt distracted by continuous feminine presence in his space and could not perform his artistic and creative functions” (190). Appraising the controversial topic of “plagiarism” in Okigbo’s poetry, Nwkanma praises Okigbo highly for “stealing with genius and originality”! (135). On occasion, the biographer indeed seems taken in by his own myth-making. When Nwakanma reports with no sense of irony that Okigbo “wrote the best essay on Greek tragedy ever submitted by any student in the Classics department of his time at Ibadan” (95), did he perhaps forget that he actually used a euphemism when he noted earlier that Okigbo and his friend Obumselu “collaborated” (82) on the said essay?

Nwakanma could count only two biographies of African writers—Armand Guibert’s of Leopold Senghor and Ezenwa Ohaeto’s of Chinua Achebe—when he was at work on Okigbo’s biography, and when the cloth edition was published in 2010. Since then, several biographies of Nigerian writers have been published. Among these include Ezechi Onyerionwu’s Ahmed Parker Yerima: The Portrait of an Artist as a Dramatist (2017) as well as his Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo: Life and Times (2017), and Sule Egya’s Niyi Osundare: A Literary Biography (2017), to mention a few. However, even in this august company, Thirsting for Sunlight remains preeminent. It is hoped that the recent paperback edition will place this invaluable work in the hands of the many readers thirsting for knowledge of Christopher Okigbo, gifted poet and fascinating man of action.

Isidore Diala, Imo State University, Owerri, Nigeria

1. Notably, in his introduction to his A Concordance to the Poems of Christopher Okigbo, MJC Echeruo considers “Upandru” a pun on Ezra Pound and notes that in describing him as the “village explainer,” Okigbo adopted precisely Gertrude Stein’s phrase for describing Pound.

This book review was published in: Africa Book LInk, Spring 2018

A Companion to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | A Review by Sola Adeyemi

Ernest N. Emenyonu (ed.). A Companion to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. England: James Currey, 2017. Cloth. ISBN: 978-1-84701-162-6 (Africa only paperback ISBN: 978-1-84701-163-3). pp. 300+xii. £25.00 hardback

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is undoubtedly one of the most engaging literary figures to have burst onto the world’s literary landscape in recent times. Her writing has introduced new motifs and narrative styles which have invigorated contemporary African fiction as well as posed challenges to the multicultural nature of our modern life. Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003) launched the writer as a serious commentator of human relationships and a notable new voice.

Purple Hibiscus is a multidimensional novel set in the Igbo region of Nigeria and deals with issues related to celibacy in the Catholic priesthood, the legitimacy of traditional Igbo religion and the resilience of a citizenry faced with political instability and the acute poverty in a wealth nation. The novel was followed a few years later by Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), one of the most important fictions written about the Nigeria-Biafra war (1967-1970).

Numerous works of fiction, faction and biography, including drama and poetry, have been written on the war by popular Nigerian writers and historians such as Elechi Amadi (Sunset in Biafra: A Civil War Diary, 1973); Wole Soyinka (The Man Died (1972), Madmen and Specialists (1970), Season of Anomy (1973), and Poems from Prison (1969; republished as A Shuttle in the Crypt, 1972)); Chinua Achebe (Beware, Soul-Brother, and Other Poems (1971), Girls at War and Other Stories (1973)); Cyprian Ekwensi (Survive the Peace (1976), Divided We Stand: a Novel of the Nigerian Civil War (1980)); and Ken Saro-Wiwa (Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English (1985)). Adichie lists thirty-nine similar texts as being influential to her writing Half of a Yellow Sun. However, none of the texts on the list had been written by someone who was not directly involved in the war. Adichie’s Yellow Sun is therefore unique in the sense that it was written by someone who was not involved in the war. In fact, Adichie was not born until 1977, seven years after the end of the war, yet Half of a Yellow Sun exposes the pathos and anguish of the period in a refreshing way. Her latest novel, Americanah (2013), ‘blends ingenious craftsmanship with extravagant and versatile innovations’ (Intro, p. 1) and probably inspired the compilation of a Companion to examine and expatiate the writing of this important writer.

A Companion to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, edited by Ernest N. Emenyonu, is an attempt to ‘examine, explore, and analyse the ramifications of Adichie’s creative outputs from a variety of perspectives that demonstrates a thorough understanding of her art, ideology, and vision as writer’ (p. 4).

Explaining the initiative for the Companion, the editor hinges it on an attempt to complete ‘unfinished conversations’ between Adichie and participants at the “Renowned African Writers / African and African Diaspora Artists Visit Series”, a forum organised in September 2014 at the University of Michigan-Flint, USA as a collaborative project of the Department of Africana Studies and the Flint Public Library to specifically discuss the writer’s work. The Companion is composed of seventeen research essays, plus an Introduction by Emenyonu. Despite the wide scope and depth of the discourse presented in the essays, the organisation is simple, with the chapters arranged to address Adichie’s works in the chronological order of the publications to date, beginning with Purple Hibiscus and ending with Americanah. There are six chapters devoted to Purple Hibiscus; four on Half of a Yellow Sun; two on The Thing Around Your Neck (2009); with the last four chapters on Americanah. Apart from the Introduction, there is a ‘lead’ essay by Louisa Uchum Egbunike, which tries to define the ideological premise of Adichie’s writing.

In “Narrating the Past: Orality, History & the Production of Knowledge in the Works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie” (pp. 15-29), Egbunike outlines the Igbo worldview out of which Adichie emerges and which informs and influences her writing. This first chapter is important in understanding Adichie’s novels as well as the discourse in the other chapters because it identifies aspects of the Igbo oral tradition and history from which Adichie draws her literary vision and inspiration. Though this chapter is introduced as authenticating the originality of Adichie’s narrative forms and techniques, this is a speculative assertion as the chapter in fact invokes and affirms the indebtedness of Adichie to Igbo oral forms and narrative techniques popularised by writers such as Chinua Achebe. Egbunike refers to overt intertextual references between Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959) and Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck (2009) (p. 23), especially the short story “The Headstrong Historian”, which she remarks as bearing a striking resemblance to [that of] Things Fall Apart, and which deals with subjects connected to the Purple Hibiscus (pp. 23-24). This chapter therefore expands the vista through which we not only view Adichie’s work, but through which we can evaluate the other chapters. Egbunike helps in this by locating Adichie’s literature within a long tradition of Igbo literary cultural production (p. 28), and connected to modern fiction of Chinua Achebe, among others.

The six chapters on Purple Hibiscus focus on various critical perspectives on the novel. Janet Ndula in “Deconstructing Binary Oppositions of Gender in Purple Hibiscus: A Review of Religious / Traditional Superiority & Silence” (pp. 31-43) hints at the novel as the establishment of Adichie’s brand of feminism which she adumbrated in her pamphlet, We Should All Be Feminists (2014). Ndula is of the view that Purple Hibiscus endorses individual efforts over gender dispositions or aspirations, and that validating gender and gender-based constructions end in dislodging the hierarchies so constructed, therefore transforming unequal societal structures into recognised equality. This summary encapsulates the direction of the argument in the remaining five essays and adequately points at the importance of Motherhood in the face of stark, unyielding masculinity, as explored in Iniobong I. Uko’s “Reconstructing Motherhood: A Mutative Reality in Purple Hibiscus” (pp. 57-71).

The chapters on Half of a Yellow Sun explore and examine the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-1970 more than they do Adichie’s intertextual narrative on the war. Understandably, this is a relevant thrust for several reasons: Adichie’s novel is a fiction based on oral and literary narratives about the war and therefore needs to be contextualised in the discourse. Further, the intertextual relationship of Adichie’s novel to the war deserves precise complications to provide a basis for a deep discourse on Half of a Yellow Sun. Emenyonu in his Introduction to the Companion asserts that the ‘great Nigerian novel’ on the war did not exist before Adichie because earlier writers could not ‘detach themselves enough to bring their imaginative vision to bear’ (p. 7) on the event. However, this statement does not properly consider the immense contributions of Cyprian Ekwensi, especially in Survive the Peace, or the works of Buchi Emecheta among others. Adichie’s novel may have been nouveau by being one of the first to be written as a popular fiction – this excludes the dramas of Chukwuma Okoye, Dele Oladeji and John Iwuh – by someone not involved in the war, but it is a novel that exists upon the imaginative construct of the thirty one texts listed at the end of the novel, and more importantly, on the recollections of Adichie’s parents. This is not denying the position of the novel in recuperating the events of the war, but it is yet another in recent works on the war, and the essays in this collection underline that. As the four contributors on Half of a Yellow Sun agree, Adichie’s contribution is important because it prods the collective amnesia on the Nigerian political stage about the war, history of which is neither memorialised in public discourse or taught in schools. More particularly, as the contributors impress on us, especially Pauline Dodgson-Katiyo (“‘Fragile Negotiations’: Olanna’s Melancholia in Half of a Yellow Sun”, pp. 115-127) and Chikwendu Paschalkizito Anyanwu (“Corruption in Post-Independence Politics: Half of a Yellow Sun as a Reflection of A Man of the People”, pp. 139-151), Adichie’s focus on characters and characterisation, historical importance of the war, intertextual engagement, and representation of gender imbues a special relevance to the work, and makes this Companion a necessary reader.

The tact changes with the contributions on Americanah. The essays in this section of the Companion interrogate Adichie’s notion of mobility and migration as they apply to women, and how the sense of location and dislocation is not dependent on physical territoriality but could be more universally placed and identified with gender oppression, mental imperative and psychological attitude.

In support of Adichie’s idea of feminism, which espouses harmonious mutual relationships across genders as a means to creating a better world, with relationships defined along capabilities, Gichingiri Ndigirigi (in “‘Reverse Appropriations’ & Transplantation in Americanah, pp. 199-211) concludes that deterritorialized females with ‘flexible citizenship’ (p. 207) emerge as autonomous ‘objects of appropriation’ (p. 211) able to traverse traditional cultures and borders. In several interviews, including her 2012 TEDxEuston Talk (later published as We Should All Be Feminists, 2014) and lately as a guest at the annual La Nuit Des Idees (A Night of Ideas), hosted by the French government in January 2018, Adichie re-members her hairstyle and the position of maintaining that style as she wants, as an emblem of feminine independence, and a symbol of created identity. The last chapter in this book, “‘Hairitage’ Matters: Transpositioning & the Third Wave Hair Movement in ‘Hair’, Imitation & Americanah” by Cristina Cruz-Guthiérrez (pp. 245-261), recuperates this point and contextualises Adichie’s hair as a representation of personal and political identity, self-perception and ‘a sign of black women rejecting previously internalized discourses of normalized femininity and appearance’ (pp. 253, 258); and transforming the women’s identities from a position of controlled submissiveness to that of empowerment.

The essays in this Companion informatively present Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s artistic vision, ideology, and intertextual engagement. Helpfully for those not very familiar with the work by or the writing of Adichie’s, the Companion concludes with an appendix of her works between 2004 and 2016, compiled by Daria Tunca (pp. 263-290), with a listing of nine books and key references, forty four short stories, ninety three essays and lectures, one hundred and eighty four interviews, and more than sixty other sources and resources that provide further insight into the writing of this important literary voice.

With her rising profile and importance as one of the major world writers, this Companion on Adichie could not have come at a better time.

Sola Adeyemi, Goldsmiths University of London, UK

This book review ws published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2018

An Interview with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim | by Elizabeth Olaoye

Questions for the author of Season of Crimson Blossoms, a book that blew my mind.

EO: Recently in Nigeria, in a dramatic turn of events, an Igbo grandmother was caught having sex with a much younger man shortly after her husband’s death. The community shamed her by parading her on the street and banishing her after making her pay some fine. The internet was agog with the news, as people wondered how a bereaved grandmother could be engaged in sex with a younger man. The first thing that came to my mind was your novel and the fascinating way it deals with the sexuality of older citizens. Do you think the collective unconscious of Hausa people among whom the story is set, and by extension that of Nigerians, accommodate female sexuality outside marriage for older citizens? What does your response say about the way Nigeria is positioned in a global order of things?

AAI: I was made aware of that incident through social media when people drew my attention to it because—in a case of life imitating art—it echoed what Season is about. I think it was an unfortunate occurrence from all perspectives. The fact that in the 21st century, people could be subjected to public shaming in this manner for what effectively was a private act is symptomatic of all that is wrong with our society. I don’t think this woman was shamed for indiscretion. That was only an excuse. That woman was shamed for being old and for being poor. If she had been wealthy, that wouldn’t have happened. If she had been male, that wouldn’t have happened. What this shows, for me, is that people are often their worst enemies, and that society that shamed, the individual members of that community that participated in this primitive melodrama, are not without their own indiscretion.

If you change the names of the characters involved in this incident, and change the locale, it could fit perfectly into any place in Nigeria, irrespective of religious inclination. This is not about the unconscious mind of the Hausa people. This is about the prevalence of these practices across ethnic and religious lines on the continent. The suppression of female sexuality has been one of the greatest psychological accomplishments of all time, and both men and women played active roles in this tyranny. In some cases the females are the most active agents in perpetuating this culture, but that is a subject for another discourse.

With regards to our positioning, I think that has been determined by other factors such as our history and our race, among others. Practices like public shaming have helped to maintain this position when other cultures and people have evolved and continue to do so. I think it is important to retain certain aspects of our cultures and values, as these form our identity as a people, but this is certainly not one of them.

EO: In Freudian psychoanalysis, a clear distinction is made between the ego, the super ego and the id. In Freud’s formulation the id is the source of our bodily needs, wants, desires and impulses. Freud believed that the id acts according to the “pleasure principle”—the psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification of any impulse. It seems to me that in Season of Crimson Blossoms, Hajia Binta, the major character in this novel, struggles to impose her ego on the id to no avail. Are you suggesting that there are desires that cannot be tamed?

AAI: There are seeds that are, by the constitution of our personalities, implanted in the id. External circumstances, such as society, peer pressure or other forms of socialization may impair the growth of this seed, but some of them persist over a lifetime. Sometimes there are things we want to express or experience, but because of the nature of our upbringing we are forced to curtail those desires. For Binta, the notion of right and wrong was clear, had been clear all her life, up until the point she meets Reza and the opportunity that encounter brings along with it. He watered the seed that had been implanted in her from the very beginning. So to answer your question directly, I have long come to the conclusion that the only battle one is certain to lose is that one fights against himself. And sometimes when desire is innate, deeply implanted in one’s id, it is only the unavailability of opportunity that will prevent the expression of this desire. Not many people succeed in getting away with these things.

EO: Are you familiar with Freud’s theory of Oedipus complex? The character of Reza seems to be forever longing for reconciliation with a lost mother. Is it coincidental or are you aware of the psychoanalytical implication of the relationship between Reza and Hajia?

AAI: I am aware of the Oedipus Complex and the reverse, the Electra Complex. I find them both strange and intriguing. What I find even more intriguing is the circumstances that lead to the manifestation and expression of such complexes. For a writer that is the greatest point of interest, because that is where the story is.

In terms of Binta and Reza, I am, as they are, very conscious of the lines and the certainty that there is no blood relation between them, but then again, both of them acknowledge the strangeness of that relationship because it is a thought that occurs to both of them. At the same time, as if to reemphasize to himself and Binta, Reza says to Binta, “You are not my mother.” For me, that was something he had always had in his head, even when he thought about the strange borderlines of their relationship.

EO: Now to trauma. Hajia’s niece, Faiza, cannot stand the colour red. It is interesting how Hureira links this to genies. I have heard of this a lot. Nigerians, especially Hausas, seem to believe this so much. The trauma theory explains Faiza’s predicament, but seems to repudiate the seeming superstitious aspects of genies. I am afraid that we are explaining away aspects of our existence that are inexplicable, using Western philosophy to nullify some strong mythical aspects of our existence as Africans. Why, for example, do people frequent ritualists if they are completely ineffective? Don’t charms work at all? Are there no demons for real? Why do our people continue to pray about these things?

AAI: The belief in the supernatural is pervasive and universal. It is not the preserve of African societies, as some people want to believe. The belief in Djinns spreads across parts of Africa and the Orient. The myths of genies, for instance, are prevalent in Africa, the Arab world and in India. In other cultures and climes they are called by other names, like shadow people, or shape-shifters. But closer examination will show that these entities share similar characteristics, regardless of what names they are called or in what part of the world they are thought to manifest. I have said before that my point of interest is not necessarily in the proof of their existence, not of djinns or other supernatural beings, but in interrogation of peoples’ belief in their existence and how they act and behave as a result of these beliefs. I am not trying to prove or disprove their existence. I am only trying to mirror how people behave because of the belief they have or don’t have about these things. Are there logical explanations for strange occurrences? Yes, sometimes there are. Sometimes there aren’t. And that makes them all the more intriguing. Is trauma real? Does it affect people in these parts of the world? Does the constant stream of assorted violence that people here are subjected to have an impact on their psyche? Yes. They may be mentally stronger but they do suffer, a lot, and the sooner we acknowledge this the better.

EO: To what extent should we call to question the morality that traps women like Hajia Binta? And to what extent should we allow our questioning instincts make us transgress the unwritten codes of culture?

AAI: It is our ability, as humans, to ask questions of existence, reality and morality that makes us a higher class of animals. It is not because we are stronger physically or faster than other animals, it is this ability to ask questions that distinguishes us. And, throughout human history, the greatest moments of change have been motivated by periods of intense questioning of morality and values. Today we find ourselves in that place once again, where tough questions are being asked of morality as humans seek to redefine themselves, their identities and what is acceptable or not. And that is why today we have people who twenty, thirty years ago, would be considered pariahs, assertively, in some cases belligerently, hurling questions that make the established order uncomfortable. So today we are reconsidering definitions of sexuality and gender roles, religion and generally what is considered right and wrong. Christianity and Islam were entrenched because men like Jesus and Muhammad (PBUH) questioned the norms of the day. This is how societies have evolved. In as much as society must evolve, however, there must be a certain level of stability, and I think people who are in a hurry for society to be more open or liberal take it for granted that the absence of any kind of moral fibre by which society is defined is as dangerous as the values they are battling to overthrow.

EO: At the end of the novel, I felt so bad for Reza, and for Hajia’s son, and for Hajia. The catharsis was too much for Hajia. I kept on telling myself, it is just a story, it is just a story. But do you think our realities are any better than the stories we tell? How do you see the relationship between the Nigerian society and fiction?

AAI: For me this is a reflection of how I see society, especially the Nigerian society, in which one gives a lot to be compliant, to flow with the norm and then at the point of divergence, and I think we all feel the urge to stray occasionally, how viciously intolerant our society could be. The Nigerian society is one that is governed by some strict codes and these codes have a way of reasserting themselves through the agency of people who often don’t realise the impact of what they are doing. Fiction is a tool that could and has been used to interrogate our relationship with society and how various little individual acts serve to preserve the pervading powers of society. In this instance, Binta and Reza were the tools I chose to explore this phenomenon.

EO: I would like to refer to an article I just read on Literary Hub about the need for authors to protect the inner life. You can read it here: What is your idea of an inner life and how have you fared since winning the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) prize for literature?

AAI: I have always been a private person and have always wanted to keep my private life private. Today, reality shows are the norms where public figures bare it all on TV shows. And the non-public figures have social media to showcase the daily dramas in their lives. The consequences are that, in order to have greater appeal, some people go an extra length to fabricate dramas in their lives and showcase them to the public to remain relevant. This is not something I particularly fancy. And since I started writing, there have been all sorts of intrusions in one’s life. There are strangers who genuinely want guidance or advice or just someone to look at their manuscripts. After the NLNG Prize, things have escalated significantly, to the point where people who don’t even read have seen one’s face in the papers and on TV. In a way that has hampered the liberties one enjoys. There are instances when it is nice, like when you go to the airport and the officers recognise you and don’t hassle you, or when people who have connected with the characters in your books, and thank you for writing the story as if you had done them a personal favour. But there are also instances where one just wants to walk quietly into a public space and enjoy some kind of normalcy, coffee with friends or just a normal conversation. Those days are increasingly hard to come by now. Sometimes you go to do normal things and someone shouts, I know you. It all means I have to be careful what I do in public, because I never know who is watching. And so I guard my private space a lot because that is where I am free to be myself.

Elizabeth Olaoye, independent researcher currently based in Nigeria. She has taught at universities in Nigeria including Ajayi Crowther University in Oyo

Season of the Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Cassava Republic Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1-911115-00-7, 320p.

This book interview was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2018

The Day Ends Like Any Day | A Review by Sola Adeyemi

Timothy Ogene, The Day Ends Like Any Day. Berkshire, England: Holland House, 2017, pp.264. ISBN: 978-1-910688-29-8 (paperback); 978-1-910688-30-4 (kindle)

The Novel that Ends like None Else

There is no sun today,
save the finch’s yellow breast,
and the world seems faultless in spite of it.
Across the sound, a continuous
ectoplasm of gray,
a ferry slits the deep waters,

bumping our little motorboats
against their pier.
The day ends like any day,
with its hour of human change
lifting even the chloretic heart.
– “A Half-Life” by Henri Cole (

The ninth line of Henri Cole’s poem is an inspiration for the title of Timothy Ogene’s novel, The Day Ends Like Any Day, published by independent publisher Holland House in 2017.

The novel is divided into three parts, with an epilogue. Part one is about the early years of the protagonist; part two is the coming of age years at the university; while part three is devoted to the relationships that Sam, the protagonist, forms during his university years and how they influence his life and experiences. The epilogue is ‘written’ by one of these friends, Osagie, who presents a revealing commentary about Sam’s life.

But, I am getting ahead of myself.

Growing up in Nigeria is always a multicultural experience as most communities are hubs of diversity. Recuperating experiences of living in such communities can be an amalgam of the amazing, the bizarrely wonderful, as well as fabulous tales. This can make a bildungsroman emerging from those experiences both credulous and incredulous, familiar and strange, but writing that the reader can identify with; and adventures that rouse a reader’s memories of their own childhood.

Timothy Ogene’s The Day Ends Like Any Day is a bildungsroman with familiar adventures and surreal experiences. This is a lyrical, vibrant, and challenging coming-of-age account of the multiple identities and multiple personalities of a young Nigerian growing up in a period when everything around him is changing but who refuses to accept that his life has been formed by the traumas and dependencies of his life and past. What makes the tale striking is that our hero grows up in Nigeria trying to find a new direction under dictatorship of the 1990s, after years of wilful neglect of the needs of its citizens.

The above are strong statements that require unpacking through an analytical review of the book. But before I continue, let me confess that The Day is one of the most interesting and unputdownable books I have read in the past several months. It resonates powerfully with my experience of growing up in Nigeria – even though the setting of the book is more than 600 kilometres from my childhood area – and some of the incidents described are not only familiar, but they seem to have happened to people whose acquaintances I had.

After that self-declaration, let’s look at what makes this book good, readable, or perhaps even tedious.

The Day is about Sam. It starts with Sam growing up in Oyigbo, near Port-Harcourt, a vibrant community only identified as O. in the book. The author’s choice of “O” could be a distanciation technique, as there are several towns around Port-Harcourt with names beginning with O, such as Okrika, Ogbogoro, Old Bakana, Onne, or Ogoni, to mention a few. However, the description of the blocks of residence and the environment recognisably describes Oyigbo, “lying east of Port Harcourt, south of the new highway [A3 motorway] that runs from Aba to Port Harcourt, and west of the murky Imo River” (p. 8). This is where the author grew up, and where our protagonist also grew up in a “room-and-parlour affair”, a two-roomed apartment in Block V, Room 7, a place with leaky roofs and cracked walls which are bordered by clogged drainages. This is the environment where Sam the protagonist weaves a vista of narratives that introduces us to exciting and unforgettable characters: his sceptical sister, Ricia; Pa Suku whose mentorship capability moulded Sam into a book lover and thinker; the cantankerous Ma Ike; Dan, the mysterious tailor’s son who has the knack of appearing at eventful moments and vanishing before trouble erupts; the enigmatic and incorrigible womaniser Jide, the only resident with a television set; and pregnant Dora who one day walked naked into a lake, drowning herself. The traumas of life follow Sam from O. to Delta State University where encounters with lover Margaret and musician friend Osagie question his sexuality and sanity.

The narratives constantly shift between the past and present, through metaphors and imagery that traverse the spaghetti routes of memories. Sam’s journey through life is described as it progresses forward whilst still rooted in the past and presents vignettes of emotions in cyclical and repetitive moments. For the author, this is more of a coming-of-language novel than coming-of-age, as he finds new imagery and new language to define Sam’s experiment with life. As the title of the novel suggests, the days become not a flow of time-limited sequences, but an eternal present that shrinks or expands through the power of our own mind. Our understanding of identity is challenged as we battle with factors that shape and define Sam but are reflected in his various encounters and unspoken thoughts. We are convinced that personalities are never identities that are built and fixed but are combinations of several identities; some belonging to us and many belonging to others; our dreams and aspirations; and our past, especially moments that tweak our imagination, such as the suicide of a teenage friend. In the end, we realise that we can never escape ourselves or the components that define our personality. And that is what Sam realizes in this psychological novel of formation.

This is a highly recommended book though description of places and landscape sometimes interrupts the action and the flow of the story. Perhaps this can be excused in a first novel. What however distracts are the grammatical errors and anachronism. For instance, an example of anachronism relates to Pa Suku: “…by the time I was in senior secondary two, that fantasy was swept away by literature” (p. 59). This is in reference to the Universal Basic Education programme in Nigeria – locally termed 6-3-3-4 – whereby pupils spend six years in primary education, followed by three years in junior secondary and three years in senior secondary, and concluding with a four-year university education. However, this programme was introduced in 1988, and given Pa Suku’s age inferred from his war experience and gap to Sam’s he would have studied under the old system of a five-year secondary education without a demarcation.

“Ricia continued to bounced along…” (p. 16); “Those where the good old days…” (p. 60); and “I awoke to Mama’s face staring down at me. had been kicking…” (p. 95) are some of the errors (in bold) that the editor missed. And, I can even pretend to understand what this is supposed to mean: “I have alternativeiivenge viewsay through Agbor, c.meant:April, 2017.I work views on everything” (p. 138).

Nonetheless, this is a highly lyrical – although not described as a memoir or an autobiography – and refreshing prose that paints the past in layers of memories. It certainly announces Timothy Ogene as a new literary voice from Nigeria.

Sola Adeyemi, Goldsmiths University of London

This book review is published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2018

“African literature is a question…an open question that invites…” | A Review of “The African Literary Hustle” (New Orleans Review, Issue 43, 2017) by Nancy Henaku

Last summer, the New Orleans Review, a journal of contemporary literature and culture housed in the Department of English at Loyola University, published their recent issue titled “The African Literary Hustle.” The journal, which has featured several writers including Pablo Neruda, Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Olen Butler, is entering its fiftieth year in 2018 and “the African Literary Hustle” is a celebration of their last printed volume as they move completely digital. The publication of “The African Literary Hustle” at this pivotal moment in the history of the journal is both symbolically and practically significant. Just as the New Orleans Review, African literature finds itself in this liminal space between the past and future and is at this present moment, recreating itself in a manner that requires us to engage with it in more dynamic ways. The symbolic significance of the collection is reinforced by the cover of the collection which features a figure that is neither human nor non-human. Through this cyborg figure, the collection envisions African literature beyond the human (or real) and opens space for speculation about its future. From a practical perspective, the volume provides a rare opportunity to center African writing which, despite the current emphasis on world literature, continues to be highly marginalized and marketed through the prism of the “anthropological exotic” (see Huggan, 2001). The issue itself is ambitious and critical, raising significant questions about the “hustle” of African writing (and writers) as well as the nature and reception of African literature. This volume is undoubtedly a physical manifestation of what Ngugi and Murphy, in their introduction to the collection, describe as African literature: that is, “an open question that invites, and has to keep inviting, different geographies, languages and forms” (4).

The anthology is huge. With four hundred and forty-two (442) pages, it reflects the diversity of African writers and literature. It features thirty-four (34) emerging and established writers from different African backgrounds. The varied background of the writers suggests a vision of an African identity, and in essence an African literary tradition, that is vast and fluid, expanding beyond the continent to include African diasporic communities and the many spaces in-between. The author profiles – and the content of the writings – suggests that African literature is as much about “writing the world from Africa” as it is about “writing Africa into the world” (Mbembe and Nuttall, 2004). But the collection itself weaves an interesting narrative about the current state of African literature. Unsurprisingly, the collection is skewed in favor of Nigeria that has thirteen (13) writers represented. The country with the second highest representation is South Africa which has four writers represented. Countries like Ghana that have not made as much influence in the literary scene recently have only one writer represented. More strikingly, the collection features only two writers from North Africa, represented by the Sudanese writers Safia Elhillo and Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin. This cursory survey somehow points to the constraints of creating a more inclusive African literary collection. And in the case of the fewer representation of North Africa, which is mainly a French/Arabic territory, language may have been a significant factor. The editors are not oblivious to the politics of language in African literature and engage with the issue through the publication of both the originals and translations of stories such as A. Samwel’s “Malaika” (translated by Koenings) and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire’s “Susu” (translated by the author) – a move that simultaneously alienates and invites readers while opening up a space for comparative reading and appreciation.

“The African Literary Hustle” presents an eclectic mix of literary genres: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, speculative fiction but many – if not all – of the texts are intentionally experimental, defying easy categorizations. For instance, though D.M. Aderibigbe’s “Someday we will be beautiful” is written in poetic verse and is condensed, the text also employs elements of drama such as dialogue, stage directions, prologue, acts and scenes. Bernard Farai Matambo’s “Cinema Verite: Scenes from the City” tells the story of the protagonist in the form of a
PechaKucha, a Japanese public speaking genre that also emphasizes the use of images presented in the form of PowerPoint. The result is a combination of features of the oral, visual and written modes. This technique creates a kind of presentation-like narrative that aligns with the effects of distanciation and immediacy enabled by the second person narration. In terms of content, significant comparisons can be drawn between “The African Literary Hustle” and other recently published African literature collections. The ones worth mentioning include Ivor
Agyeman-Duah’s edited collection The God Who Sends Us Gifts: An Anthology of African Short Stories and Saraba’s “Transition” issue which was published in October this year. The God Who Sends Us Gifts, which will be released in January 2018, commemorates the 55th anniversary of the first conference on African Writing held in 1962 at Makerere University College. Unlike “the African Literary Hustle”, The God Who Sends Us Gifts seems to prioritize the short story form. Saraba tends to publish an ecclectic mix of genres often based on a theme and this is reflected in the “Transitions” issue. Interestingly, while “The African Literary Hustle” was published as New Orleans Review moves digital, Saraba has been publishing online and it was just this year that its first printed version, the “Transitions” issue, was published.

Besides its varied content, “the African Literary Hustle” also transgresses the restrictive expectations of the African literary canon in its older (represented by Achebe, Ngugi, etc.) and newer (represented by Adichie, Bulawayo, etc.) manifestations and as Ngugi and Murphy rightly indicate, “they have left African literary criticism behind” (2). The entries interrogate the logic of realism that, as Andrade (2008) suggests, has become the definitive critical approach to African literature. For instance, Unathi Slasha’s “The Unlanguaged World: Reflections on Contemporary South African Fiction” draws attention to the limitation of the logic of rationality and linearity that underlies the realistic mode of writing literature. He emphasizes the uncanniness of life in (South) Africa and the ways in which this blurs the distinctions between the real and the unreal. Unathi’s work suggests that the uncanny is not an exception in Africa. It is not a defamiliarizing literary mode. It is, in fact, an everyday reality. Ngugi’s “Publisher’s Deposition: The Famished Dick and the Wicked of the Earth” is simultaneously aware and wary of the African literary canon. This is evident in the following excerpt from the text where the author’s attitude to the canon seems more obvious.

Let me try and make sense here. I am not who I thus far seem to be. You see this book from afar, its glossy cover beckoning you, or perhaps you have heard about it from a friend and you think it is published by a house with a good reputation like Heinemann, or perhaps by a radical house like Kimaathi Publishing. These are two publishing houses where this book would have found a good home. You might think that if you wrote a good novel or biography, you would send it to the publisher of The Broken Lives of Joseph Kamau. Depending on who you are, there is a good chance our relationship begins and ends with this book. Allow me to tell you why.

Does the name Sunny Side Up Publishing mean anything to you? How about the following titles from the “AFRICAN SERIAL LOVER CLASSICS?”
The Famished Dick
Maps: Tracing Your Lover’s Body
Redemption Thong
Stirring Love in an African Pot
Things Fall Inside
No Longer with Ease: Viagra and Old Age in Africa Petals of Honey
The Honey Between
The Beautiful Ones are not Yet Born: Let’s Get It On
Nervous Conditions: Fifty Ways to Get It On for the First Time

The biting irony, sarcasm and playful intertextuality of the excerpt above produces an iconoclastic tone that sheds off every romantic idea the reader may have about the African literary canon and brings to the fore the politics and economics of the “hustle” of publishing in Africa. Central in this excerpt are the sexual innuendos that unapologetically cast slurs at “what African literary critics call High Literature” (427). Written as a paratext – a publisher’s introductory preface to a novel – “The Famished Dick” on the whole makes a joke of the distinctions we make between fiction and nonfiction.

The entries are not anthropological narratives of African lives and cultures. This does not mean that the texts have no socio-political significance. In fact, the collection’s emphasis on the African literary hustle is itself a very political decision. However, the writings in the collection are not political in the same sense as Things Fall Apart was political. They invite readers to give as much attention to aesthetics as they give to themes. And if you are looking for the usual themes, the ones that have become the defining characteristics of postcolonial Africa – war, corruption, coups d’état – you won’t find them in this collection and when you think you have found one, you should be prepared for some surprises. For instance, when we encounter the protagonist of Obi Calvin Umeozor’s “The Marvel in the Storm”, he is a man who seems to have all the characteristics of a greedy politician – he cheats on his wife, fights in public and embezzles public funds. Yet readers are surprised by the situational irony at the end of the narrative that enables us to see this politician not just as a caricature but as one with the capacity to feel love and regret. And like the protagonist’s son, the reader comes out of the reading almost forgiving the protagonist’s misdemeanors.

As indicated earlier, “hustling” is the dominant motif in the collection. It manifests itself in myriad ways, viz the hustle of language, the hustle of living, the hustle of writing and reading. Consider Novisi Dzitrie’s poem “Getting Down to Business” which explores the hustle of writing through its succinct description of the labor and ritual of writing. The poem is as much about the struggle to make meaning, to express the unknown as it is about “the way the mind conducts business”, which finds expression in the constant shifts in the persona’s consciousness: from the weather, to the writing, to the food, to the news portal, back to the writing and finally to “the fury of your [a lover’s] bouncing bottom” (292). Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire’s “Susu” is about the hustle of living in an African city. The story centers on the frustrations of a protagonist in search of an appropriate place to urinate in a city that has limited public toilet facilities. Politics is important in this story too and is reflected in the commentaries on the annoyances of mobility in the African cityscape, the state of public toilets and the general political condition. But what we don’t have is some moralizing authorial voice intent on diagnosing the problems of a failed state.

The entries are as much about the hustle of living in Africa, as they are about the hustle of living in a precarious world. This is evident in Salawu Oladjide’s “Remembering Bouazzizi”, Stephen Derwent Partington’s “I am offered a Praline while Syria is Bombed” and Adefolami Ademola’s “No Dancing in Syria.” But writing about the hustles of the world also calls for an engagement with worldly aesthetics. This is obvious in the hybridity of stories such as Iheoma Nwachukwu’s “Sirrin Mata” and Olufunke Ogundimu “The Armed Letter Writers” that capture the cadence of African speech via English. It is in the jazzy flavor in Makambo Tshionyi’s “Slo Girl, Jazzy, and Me” as well as the bluesy undertones (intermixed with humor) and the intertextual reference to Odetta in Tsitsi Jaji’s “Blue Note”. It is in the hustle of communicating with “an other” without sharing a common language in Akin Adesokan’s “A Chair Named Stalin”. And it is in the otherworldliness of Dilman Dila’s “The Taking of Oleng” and Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti’s “It just kills you Inside”. As the examples indicates, the aesthetics of the entries are as varied as their subjects but most importantly, the aesthetics of each text aligns with its subject. Consider the following excerpts from Makambo Tshionyi’s “Slo Girl, Jazzy, and Me” for instance:

The first time I come to know what I know about him, I feels like I’m swimmin’ on the quiet side of the never before. I wriggles my toes, struggles to get free. But there he be: starin’ at me proper; a wolf’s grin pinned to his ears. I feels then that I looks like I knows somethin’ that maybe I shouldn’t. Because I seen the Man and the Man seen me. He whistles sharp into the dark, and his words drift down like dust, an’ I can’t do nothin’ but listen. His mouth comes to full circle and he grins. My knees buckle easy into the quiet. I feels stone in my legs, drift weight in my calves. You hear him, I ask Jazzy an’ Slo Girl? Singin’ up our supper? Uh course we does—they reply—Uh course we does… (155-156)

Besides being characterized by linguistic features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), the rhythm of the narrative adds a musical feel to the prose which effectively aligns with the centrality of music in the text. Moreover, the text’s delicious descriptions engage with the reader’s senses in significant ways. The brief excerpt above, for instance, appeals to the reader’s tactile, kinesthetic, visual and auditory senses and allows the reader to vicariously experience the sensual pleasures that the characters (that is Jazzy, Slo Girl and the narrator) seems to be experiencing in the excerpt.

These works are universal. They confound temporal, historical and geographical boundaries. They invite us to engage with them for the mere fact that they say something beautiful and insightful about being in the world whether as humans, non-humans or hybrids. They teach us to reimagine African literature beyond the real. They show us that African literature is like the cyborgian figure on the cover of the issue, with its eyes both intense and intimate, challenging as well as inviting us — writer and reader alike — to reassess our engagements with African literature. The collection tells us that African literature is not homogenous. It is a question, an open-ended question — the kind that confounds and defies straightforward answers. And it is a hustle for both writer and reader.

Ngugi, Mukoma wa and Murphy, Laura T. (2017). The African Literary Hustle. New Orleans
Review, 43.

Andrade, Susan Z. (2009). The problem of realism and African fiction. Novel, 42(2), 183-189.

Huggan, Graham (2001). The Post-colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. New York:

Mbembé, J. A., & Nuttall, S. (2004). Writing the world from an African metropolis. Public
culture, 16(3), 347-372.

Nancy Henaku (PhD Candidate /Graduate Teaching Instructor Rhetoric, Theory and Culture, Michigan Technological University)

This book review was published in Africa Book Link, Winter 2017-2018, December 2017.

Stanley Gazemba on mermaids and how to prevent us from turning into robots | An interview by Elke Seghers

I interviewed the Kenyan author Stanley Gazemba on the occasion of his 2002 novel The Stone Hills of Maragoli being republished in the U.S. under the title Forbidden Fruit (June 2017). In April 2017, we had a conversation about his work and the Kenyan literary landscape at the Go Down Arts Centre in Nairobi, where Gazemba is the editor of Ketebul Music.

ES: As I understood it, Forbidden Fruit is going to be published soon.

SG: Yes, although in fact, Forbidden Fruit is not a new book, but was published in 2002 as The Stone Hills of Maragoli. The whole thing was quite an adventurous journey. It was first published by Acacia Publishers, which was at the time newly founded by someone who had left East African Educational Publishers. I had actually first submitted the manuscript to the latter publishing house, but Acacia picked it up. From the very moment it went to print, I started hearing rumours that the judges of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize had taken a liking to it. The book was competing neck to neck with a submission from East African Educational Publishers. However, the judges liked the book and in 2003, The Stone Hills of Maragoli won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature.

ES: What did winning the Jomo Kenyatta Prize mean for you?

SG: It helps your reputation as a writer, but it also creates problems. When I won, I received 50 000 shillings. But everyone had seen my face in the newspaper. So, if you walk into a pub, you have to buy the drinks. Your friends and your neighbours look at you differently, they think you are rich, when in reality, not much has changed.

ES: Do you think there should be more initiatives for Kenyan writers?

SG: I think, first of all, there is a need for sincerity. It feels as though publishers manipulate these prizes. I am told East African Educational Publishers were really rooting for their guy to win. As my publisher was small and was a competitor that had branched off from East African, there were a lot of things playing against me. I am told that publishers also pay bribes to the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development to have their books accepted for the school system. Of course there’s no evidence to support this. All the same it is a rotten system and it is hard for authors to operate in such an environment. Maybe this is something that happens all over the world in publishing, but I think it is very discouraging. You cannot build a proper literary culture based on people pushing brown envelopes. Writing can only grow when the guys at the top are there because they deserve it. There is also the problem of piracy. There are a lot of pirated books on the market and the fines are relatively low.

ES: What happened after you won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize?

SG: Unfortunately, Acacia Publishers went bankrupt. After some time, Kwani? Trust decided to publish the novel. As Kwani? is an NGO, everybody had a fixed salary rather than a commission. I felt as though they did not make much effort to sell the book and I got frustrated with them. I was doing a lot of marketing myself. Publishing in Kenya is all about getting a book into the school system, so I was going to classes to talk to the students and sell some books. The book became a set text in quite a number of universities, mostly around Nairobi. But when my royalties started coming in, they did not reflect my efforts. That is why I decided I needed to find a serious commercial publisher.

ES: I understand you did not have an easy relationship with your publishers.

SG: I have had the same problems with almost all of my publishers. They are keen on putting books out but do not make much effort afterwards. Furthermore, they do not pay people on time and do not invest in promotion. That is the reason why I reached out to an American publisher. I met my American publisher last year at a festival in Uganda. At the very last day of the event, I decided to show him my book. He read the book on the plane home and he liked it. I immediately got an email to say that he was very interested and wanted to publish it. Things started moving very fast and I think it is now in print.

ES: How do you feel about reaching a new audience?

SG: I meant to break through internationally this year. Right now as we speak, I was supposed to be in Venice to launch a collection of short stories called Dog Meat Samosa. There had been plans for activities in the media over there. Unfortunately, I could not get the visa to go to Italy. This was not the first time I was invited to go to Venice, I was also invited in 2013 but had similar visa problems. The book has been published, but I do not know if it is going to sell well without me being there.

ES: What kind of audience do you target?

SG: I think my prime target is the average person, although I know that you cannot survive without elitist readers, because those are the people with the money; the average reader would most likely access your book from a public library. But that tiny middle class audience is not enough to make something a commercial success either. The reality on the ground is that you cannot survive in Kenya unless you are part of the school curriculum. Ultimately, I want to be successful internationally. I am sure that there is no writer who just wants to be read by his village.

ES: How does that affect your choice of language? You write in English, but use a lot of Luhya words in The Stone Hills of Maragoli. Do you think the only way to be read is to write in English?

SG: I think that is a tricky question. Language is something political. In Kenya, we have no choice but to write in English. English has become a global language and if you really want to be read by a cross-section of readers around the world, you cannot avoid English. But having said that, I find that, although English is widely used in Kenya, there are certain things that we can only communicate amongst ourselves, be it in Kiswahili or Luhya or Lulogooli. I will express the things that I feel deep inside in Lulogooli. The question is how to express oneself in that deep way to someone who does not understand Lulogooli or Kiswahili. Achebe was writing in English but he had his own version, a certain English that can be understood by a British reader, but that is clearly not British English. The challenge on the African writer is to use the tools available to him, but in a way that certain things are twisted to make it convey what he wants to say. If I would use phrases or expressions that I have read in a book by George Eliot, I think I would come across as a fake. The only solution is to use that language but use it in such a way that it is Africanized, bent to suit one’s own. That is why I said language is something political.

ES: Let’s talk a bit about the book itself. I noticed The Stone Hills of Maragoli focuses on life in the countryside and the perspective of the labourers.

SG: I set The Stone Hills of Maragoli in a fictitious village modelled on the village in which I grew up in Western Kenya. It was a deliberate decision. Although I now live in Nairobi, I chose to set my book in the village because that is the only place where you can have a taste of authentic Kenyan everyday life as a visitor to the country. It is very important to me to tell the Kenyan story from the point-of-view of an ordinary Kenyan who walks the dusty streets of the small back-wood towns. It is the reason I choose to root those stories I set in Nairobi deep in the ghettos of the city. One such book is a collection of short stories about Nairobi called Nairobi Echoes. I like to think that the soul of any city is buried in those ghetto places. They are rarely highlighted, but that is where the majority of people live. I am also deeply attached to labourers because I believe they are the engine of any economy- the guys who roll up their sleeves and put the greasy wrenches to the machine’s nuts and bolts, crawling into the belly of the machine to fix what is bothering it. The farmhands who tend to the coffee and the cows are the people who really drive an economy. And they are very open folks too. In middle class Nairobi, for instance, there is a façade; people try to put up a front. They eat their food with knives and forks like white people, whereas if you go to these other places, people wash their hands and eat in the traditional way. It is more interesting for me to observe and write about these ordinary people who are more accessible.

ES: So you want to show life as it is in your writing?

SG: Yes, I want to capture it in its basic form. I came to find that people in the village are much more real, just like in the ghettos. In the kind of stories I write, I create characters from the people I interact with. As a writer, I am always keen to know about someone’s fears, joys and aspirations, about what makes them who they are.

ES: I was also interested in the depiction of the seductive Madam Tabitha. She is described as a creature half-woman and half-fish. Where does this image come from?

SG: The image of a mermaid has always been the centre stage of the discourse of the village and by extension the ghetto. There are always stories of farmers who make money and want to make up for lost time after the harvest season. The farmer moves to the market centre or the local town and books himself into a hotel with a commercial sex worker. The story always ends with the poor farmer losing all of his money to the lady, who oftentimes comes from Nairobi, or, even worse, Mombasa, and is much more wily and street-smart. This narrative of people losing their sanity and wealth to a flashy and attractive lady who drives them mad has never changed. And that agrees with the image of the mermaid who is very beautiful but not quite human. I think Madam Tabitha, as a character, feeds off of all of those stories.

ES: Are there any writers that influenced you?

SG: Chinua Achebe, who I studied in High school, although the experience was a little unpleasant as the system made you cram passages from his books instead of reading for pleasure. The early Ngugi wa Thiong’o used to write very well until Marxism went into his head. I enjoy Meja Mwangi. I also like John Steinbeck’s style although I am told he is an old-fashioned American writer. Ken Follet is very good at creating characters. When it comes to contemporary African writers, there is Ben Okri, Chimamanda Adichie and Nadifa Mohamed, to mention but a few.

ES: As a final question, why do you think literature is important?

SG: I think we cannot do without writers. I do not think there is any society that has developed scientifically without that growth being fuelled by the arts. I think the arts give direction to the other spheres. On that note, I believe the arts are not just, as they are derogatively called in universities, humanities. They are much more. You cannot be a good creator if you do not understand other spheres of life. You need to be an informed person in order to write. Most importantly, if it were not for the arts, we would become robots. What would people look like without culture; without good books, music and theatre? I also believe it is very easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger, for example from a foreign country, if both of you have read such or such a writer or if both of you are interested in the same musical instrument. Those are some of the things that make me believe that the arts are important. Even in politics it is usually a musician who is hyping up the crowd before the politician mounts the stage.

Stanley Gazemba, Forbidden Fruit (Astoria, NY: The Mantle 2017). ISBN 978-0-9986423-0-7. Available from The Mantle; 286 pages

This interview was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2017: Eastern Africa

Writing beyond borders: Kwani Trust as an ambitious African LINGO | An article by Ewout Decoorne

Hidden behind a leafy courtyard off Nairobi’s Riverside Drive, Kwani Trust houses one of Kenya’s (and perhaps Africa’s) most fascinating literary contributions of the last decades. The small, cosy shop can hardly reveal the magnitude of this movement, which since its inception in 2003 has adopted an increasingly influential voice within Africa’s intellectual and cultural arena. Kwani Trust has developed into a literary hub that assembles an ever expanding community of writers, poets, journalists, academics, photographers etc., who showcase a great variety of work in an impressive range of literary products and happenings. Apart from its role as a publishing house, Kwani Trust provides training opportunities for upcoming talent, organises literary festivals (the last edition of Kwani LitFest dates from 2015, the next one is to be expected in 2018), holds numerous projects dedicated to the promotion of contemporary literature, and, perhaps most importantly, comments upon current social, political and cultural affairs through its magazine Kwani?. As a compilation of prose fiction, poetry, literary experiments, journalism, interviews, articles, and photography, this journal offers a selection of today’s best and brightest literary talents in Kenya, the rest of the continent, and beyond. In this contribution, I will consider the role that Kwani assumes today within Kenya’s literary field through the most recent issue of its magazine: Kwani? 08, and by referring to the ground-breaking study by Doreen Strauhs on Kwani Trust and similar initiatives past and present.

Literary organisations in Africa that situate themselves outside the regular commercial publishing circuit and, at the same time, do not operate within or thanks to state-funded (academic) institutions are neither extraordinary nor new. In her book African Literary NGOs: Power, Politics, and Participation, Doreen Strauhs has studied Kwani Trust together with the Ugandan organisation FEMRITE as two examples of African LINGOs. LINGO, as Strauhs has coined the term, stands for literary non-governmental organisation. Strauhs defines this as “[f]irst and foremost, […] a non-governmental organisation with a focus on the production and promotion of literary talent, events, and publications that is situated in the nonprofit sector.”[1] Naming various examples from Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana, Strauhs indicates that LINGOs exist throughout the continent.[2] Also within Kenya several other initiatives that dedicate themselves to the written word situate themselves in this non-profit sociocultural sphere. Jalada, Twaweza Communications, Storymoja… they all operate independently from governmental guidelines or strictly commercial agendas. Moreover, these various initiatives are embedded within a tradition that stretches back for over more than half a century.

Consequently, Strauhs suggests that LINGOs such as Kwani Trust and FEMRITE are not as new or revolutionary as they like to stage themselves. According to Strauhs, the first LINGOs surfaced at the beginning of the 1960s, elaborating on and responding to the literary networks that were rooted in colonial cultural and academic infrastructures. As such, LINGOs have been driven from their very first beginnings “by networks of people spanning across and beyond transnational borders, triggering contacts and synergies between writers as well as critics from around the world.”[3] Chemchemi Creative Centre, established in 1963 in Nairobi and directed by the South African writer Es’kia Mphahlele was directly influenced by Ibadan’s Mbari Club, and, as such, prefigured the cosmopolitan and hybrid nature of today’s Kwani Trust. The Kwani? magazine, in its turn, is a direct heir to the late Transition magazine, a literary journal that in the sixties and seventies echoed the equally legendary Black Orpheus magazine. From the very beginning, literary associations looked beyond the borders of the nation and adopted transnational perspectives on literary creativity in the continent and the diaspora. After two difficult decades at the end of the 20th century due to political, economic and social upheavals, the LINGO and its editorial appendages re-entered Africa’s literary stage. Kwani? 01 appeared in 2003, its first editor being Binyavanga Wainaina, who had been awarded with the Caine Prize for African Writing the year before. An acclaimed author arriving from South Africa, establishing an ambitious literary project in Nairobi: Es’kia Mphahlele’s course seemed to be repeated.

Does this suggest that Kwani Trust will face the same challenges as Chemchemi Creative Centre, its defunct predecessor? Strauhs considers the history of LINGOs in the 1960s and 70s in order to indicate some of the main issues that threaten today’s organisations survival in volatile African book markets. The author identifies two conditions which can nurture or harm the institutionalisation of the LINGO: the one is socio-political, the other sociocultural. A stable social and political climate that allows limited forms of free speech in a fairly democratic environment is necessary for LINGOs to function, although FEMRITE demonstrates in Uganda that organisations can be surprisingly flexible to adapt to unfavourable political conditions. Visibility and funding opportunities open up along with the international recognition that is awarded to the LINGO and the writers involved. Here, sociocultural factors come into play: literary networks and prizes heighten the author’s and publisher’s prestige. However, (foreign) funding and (international) recognition are double-edged swords: they can stifle creativity as much as they can boost it. Given these multiple challenges, Strauhs identifies several threats and weaknesses that limit the influence and sustainability of African LINGOs. Non-African funding structures that limit the organisation’s independence, the fragile right of free speech and the infrastructural limitations of publishing distribution networks are major threats. Possible weaknesses are a too outspoken political commitment that might trigger repressive measures from political regimes and a lack of resources to implement crisis management when necessary.[4] Nevertheless, the Concerned Kenyan Writers’ response to the crisis following the electoral tragedy of 2007 has proven that literature can become a tough opponent to political authority and socio-economic challenges. For its survival, the LINGO faces obstacles that are more persistent and profound. Strauhs concludes that “the dependency on funding in the light of limited local markets for creative writing and the lack of government support probably remains the most prominent challenge to the LINGOs sustainability.” [5] For the time being, however, Kwani Trust seems to flourish, unhampered by the apparent curtailing of free speech and artistic freedom in many parts of the world. It’s magazine, again, provides convincing evidence.

With several hundreds of pages and a remarkably wide thematic and stylistic range, Kwani? journal is undoubtedly the organisation’s flagship publication. In a way, it serves as a sample of what the organisation stands for, and how it opens up an intellectual space for social, political and cultural debate. Every issue has its principal theme. The most recent one, Kwani? 08, appeared in 2015 and takes the 2013 general elections as starting point. Today, as the consequences of the 2017 general elections are still taking shape, the journal seems more relevant than ever. Even though the last issue appeared two years ago, it still provides profound insights into Kenya’s political landscape, and the ways in which Kenyans cope with the country’s principal challenges. Besides, little has changed since the previous elections anyway. The main competitors in 2017 are the same as back then. The socio-political context in which the elections have taken place are strikingly familiar as well: fear of a repetition of the 2007 post-election violence, the public opinion’s critique on the tendency in Kenyan politics to mobilise ethnic-based alliances, and, ultimately, the general distrust in the election’s procedures.

Given its length and scope, tackling every contribution to Kwani? 08 is an impossible task. Instead, I would like to single out some interesting features. First of all, there is the immense variety in genres, voices and modes of narration. The extensive table of contents announces following sections: short takes, long takes, elegy and verse, map and journey, revelation and conversation, spectacle and invention, electoral meanderings, scenarios, the other, and photo essays. This diversity in narrative media reflects the multitude of voices and perspectives the issue offers. This edition’s unifying theme, the 2013 elections, are examined through a prism of testimonies, pamphlets, analyses, reports, poems, interviews, text messages, plays and photographs. The magazine shows how literature can become a complex play that works in several directions. Strauhs, who draws theoretically from Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological approach towards literature, appreciates the LINGO’s configuration strikingly as follows: “[T]he bottom-up promotion of information is exactly what again shows the LINGO’s ambivalent role as both producers of literature as well as agents participating in the process of public opinion making.” [6] In his editorial, Billy Kahora criticises the “Peace Industry” that followed the post-election tragedy in 2007. The peace campaign was so deafening it led to the critique “that [it] forced the making of certain choices and curbed real scrutiny into things.” [7] The eighth Kwani? issue therefore looks behind smoke-screens set up by political parties, the official authorities, and the media.

In the first contribution, entitled “Moving on to what?”, Patrick Gathara compares concerned Kenyans to the wife of Lot, who, against premonitions, turned around to face the destruction of her native Sodom and got instantly transformed into a pillar of salt. Gathara likens the biblical flight from Sodom to the general exodus in 2013 in Kenya from “the flames of five years before that and the iniquity of the last 50 years”. [8] Lot’s wife looked back out of rage, which is exactly the same reason why some Kenyans do look back in 2013. Most of them, however, did not look back. They followed authority’s almost Biblical guidelines instead. Gathara is “outraged at the lack of outrage”. [9] In 2013, accepting the status-quo was considered as the only alternative to anarchy. Gathara laments how “Kenya has become a country of official truth with very few daring to challenge the official narratives.” [10] In an exemplary contribution that fuses opinion making and literary prose, the author foreshadows the issue’s main conceptions. The magazine and its contributors do look back, even if this means taking the risk of provoking divine powers. Kwani Trust offers a space for critical judgement, and, as such, fills the moral gap that other media leave open.

The magazine defies dominant narratives by opening up spaces where as many voices as possible can be heard. The section “SMS Politikal” consists of text messages sent during the election week, [11] Tom Maliti’s interview with Philip Ochieng includes questions from an audience,[12] Ngala Chome introduces excerpts from a Pwani elections observer’s diary, [13] and Usama Goldsmith’s extensive oral history of the Mombasa Republican Council questions identity, assumptions about Kenyan nationhood and official narratives through an elaborate selection of testimonies, documents, news items etc.[14] Some contributors, such as the poet Kate Hampton, invite the reader to react via Twitter, thus including social media in a literary setting.[15] The magazine raises a platform where personal, official, academic and fictional narrations by authors, readers and other instances get transmitted. As a result, the election theme expands to more universal subjects such as love and identity (see for instance Abdul Adan’s story “The Somalification of James Karangi” on forbidden love in a tribal political configuration),[16] or to other places in Africa and the diaspora. Examples include “Skin Parliament” by Chike Pilgrim, a writer from Trinidad and Tobago,[17] Dele Meiji’s poem “Cueta” referring to the refugee crisis on the Mediterranean,[18] and Jennifer Huxta’s report on the first free elections in Tunisia.[19]

Kwani Trust’s authors evidently write beyond borders. First of all, they transcend Kenya as a nation. Although the LINGO’s signature remains undeniably Kenyan, both its literary input and its distribution network are transnational. Secondly, the writers deliberately refrain from traditional stylistic, thematic or linguistic categorisations. Fact or fiction, written or oral, print or digital, text or image, English or Swahili; Kwani Trust rejects easy qualifications. African literatures in general tend to defy rigid and stubborn conceptualisations of what literature ought to be, and Kwani Trust skilfully reminds us of this. In doing so, the LINGO points perhaps in the direction in which literature’s function lies in our times and the next. That is: in being critical, daring and diverse. With its stylistic, thematic and social inclusiveness on the one hand, and its self-reflexive institutional goals on the other, Africa’s LINGOs in general – and Kwani Trust in particular – serve as noteworthy examples of literature’s ongoing relevance. In times of fact-opinion blending and diminishing space for nuance and diverging perspectives, magazines such as Kwani? show that the transfer of ideas can be ingenious and dynamic, which is reflected in the journal’s variety in narrative modes and genres. When old menaces such as social polarisation, contestation of freedom of speech and nationalistic fervour regain influence, Kwani Trust proves that literature, as a space for (transnational) dialogue and exchange, is resilient and powerful.

Ewout Decoorne

Kahora, Billy (ed.), Kwani? 08, Nairobi: Kwani Trust, 2015.
Strauhs, Doreen, African Literary NGOs: Power, Politics, and Participation, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[1] D. Strauhs, African Literary NGOs : Power, Politics, and Participation, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 22.
[2] Ibid. p. 31.
[3] Ibid. p. 42.
[4] Ibid. p. 76.
[5] Ibid. p. 90.
[6] Ibid. p. 167.
[7] B. Kahora, “Editorial” in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, Nairobi: Kwani Trust, 2013, p. 8.
[8] P. Gathara, “Moving On To What?” in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 14.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., p. 19.
[11] “SMS Politikal” in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 38.
[12] T. Maliti, “An Interview With Philip Ochieng” in B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 40.
[13] Chome N., “Diary of a Pwani Elections Observer” in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 118.
[14] U. Goldsmith, “An Oral History of the MRC”, in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 44.
[15] K. Hampton, “Seeds of Democracy”, in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 413.
[16] A. Adan, “The Somalification of James Karangi” in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 352.
[17] C. Pilgrim, “Skin Parliament”, in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 540.
[18] D. Meiji, “Ceuta”, in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 560.
[19] J. Huxta, “On Tunisian Elections”, in: B. Kahora, Kwani 08, p. 586.

This article was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2017: Eastern Africa

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Birth of a Dream Weaver. A Writer’s Awakening | A Review by Inge Brinkman

Colonialism and nationalism are big words. So big that they may become meaningless abstractions. Through telling about his personal experiences with these overarching concepts, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o shows what possible meanings they can acquire. In the trilogy of memoirs he wrote – Dreams in a Time of War, In the House of the Interpreter and Birth of a Dream Weaver – Ngũgĩ charts the vicissitudes of life from his birth in 1938 in a peasant homestead in Limuru, Central Kenya to his admission to Leeds University in 1964.

The first book (2010) focuses on the childhood years of the author. The main ingredients are games and story-telling; Ngũgĩ’s siblings, the wives of his father and his mother’s decision to divorce; the tensions between colonial/missionary schools and local culture; and the start of the war for independence in Kenya in the 1950s.

In the House of the Interpreter (2012) tells about Ngũgĩ’s time at the prestigious Alliance High School as a teenager. In the meantime the war is a full-blown reality and the safety of the homestead is brutally destroyed as the village is razed to the ground, one his half-brothers killed, another brother fights in the forests, is then captured and detained, and his mother spends time in prison. Despite these troubling times, the young Ngũgĩ manages to pursue his education and is eventually admitted to Makerere University in Uganda.

This is where Birth of a Dream Weaver starts. Many young intellectuals from all over East Africa find themselves at Makerere in the early 1960s and already for this reason the book is an interesting read. The climate in which this important generation of African writers is formed is vividly described. We learn about Ngũgĩ’s first meetings with writers, like Peter Nazareth and Jonathan Kariara, and future politicians like Benjamin Mkapa (third President of Tanzania), and how he enters the realm of the important African literary magazines like Penpoint and Transition. Ngũgĩ receives an invitation for the famous First International Conference of Writers of English Expression in 1962, where he finds himself “among the big names of the time”: Ezekiel Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Langston Hughes, etc. It is here that the debates take place that so much mark Ngũgĩ’s later career and his eventual choice to write in his native Gĩkũyũ.

Nobody is, of course, born a writer. Yet, already as a child in Dreams in a Time of War, Ngũgĩ’s love of performance and reading became apparent, and this has clearly not diminished in Birth of a Dream Weaver. The young James Ngugi, as he is then called, writes a play for the University interhall English competition, and thrills at the publication of his short story – The Fig Tree – in Penpoint in 1960. He describes how he takes a bus to Nairobi to personally deliver his first novel manuscript to the East African Literature Bureau, and the changes of its title from “Wrestling with God” to “The Black Messiah”, to be published in the end as The River Between. The first performance of his three-act play The Black Hermit is spelled out in rich detail, while in the meantime his second novel Weep not, Child is published. Although he does himself not quite understand why, he leaves his career as a journalist with Kenya’s largest newspaper The Daily Nation. He wants to weave dreams and be a writer.

All this is set against the background of friendly competition between the different Halls of Makerere University, the cockiness of the students shouting “Uncle!” at the Student Guild assemblies, not realizing they are referring to the French “Encore!” (154), and the encounters between students and staff at Makerere.

But this book would not be Ngũgĩ’s, if not politics played a major part in it. We learn about the differences in political history between Uganda and the settler colony of Kenya, and of the various resistance movements that confronted the colonial system. Of course, the so-called Mau Mau – “called by its rightful name, Land and Freedom Army” (ix) – receives ample attention, but as a Kenyan in Uganda Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o broadens the scope to include politics at a world level, discussing colonialism and racism in history.

For Ngũgĩ, politics is not a matter beyond himself and his activities; it directly impinges on him. Thus Birth of a dream weaver starts with the story of how Ngũgĩ’s prize-winning play ‘The Wound in the Heart” was refused to be performed at the Kampala National Theatre as in it it is suggested that a British officer had raped a woman during the war. “They have nothing against the play as a play, […] but they think a British officer could not do that!” (p. 4) is the explanation Ngũgĩ is offered. The author continues with narrating the Hola Massacre whereby eleven men were bludgeoned to death by British camp officers in 1959. People in Central Kenya know better than that ‘a British officer could not do that’. In the settler worldview, the lives of “the natives” are not worth mentioning, compared to animals at best.

Also in the dealings with the professors at Makerere University, race relations are a crucial factor. Some teachers indeed fulfil all the stereotypes of racist colonial attitudes, looking down on the students with patronizing condescension. Yet others prove inspiring for the young Ngũgĩ. Apart of the crucial role of his mother in pursuing his education, Ngũgĩ stresses the support of his fellow students and some of his teachers at Makerere University.

It is precisely the sense for personal detail that makes this memoir so fascinating. Instead of blanket terms and rigid categories, we get the atmosphere of the late colonial world in East Africa through daily experiences in the interactions between people. The memoir’s three broad themes – the inequalities and injustices of colonialism, the growth of a generation of African intellectuals, carrying the haunting memory of colonial violence as well as the hopes and fears for the future, and Ngũgĩ’s own start as a writer – are cleverly woven together in beautiful prose. Perhaps this will finally convince the jury to award Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Birth of a Dream Weaver. A Writer’s Awakening (London: Harvill Secker, Pinguin Vintage, 2016). 238 pp (notes + 20 photographs). The book was originally published by The New Press, September 2016.

Birth of a dreamweaver will be published in a Dutch translation in Fall 2017 under the title: De geboorte van een dromenwever (Amsterdam University Press)

– Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Dreams in a time of war: a childhood memoir (2010).
– Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, In the house of the interpreter (2012).

Inge Brinkman, African Languages and Cultures, Ghent University

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2017: Eastern Africa

Finding the poetry in East Africa and beyond | An article by Ruth Finnegan

Is this a poem?

I long for you, as one
Whose dhow in summer winds
Is blown adrift and lost,
Longs for land, and finds –
Again the compass tells –
A grey and empty sea.

Surely yes, this is a poem, says my heart. Yet it was not – as we literacy obsessed might think – written down. Nor was it designed for readers. It was composed and sung by a Somali lorry driver in the east of Africa. It was sung in town taverns, hummed by young men as they went about their labours, listened to with half (or more, or less) attention on the battery-operated radios and cassette-players carried by camel riders on long journeys across the desert.

It is an example of the Somali genre of poetry or literary composition known as balwo, whose development in the 1940s is credited to the singer/poet Abdi Sinimo. It is also popular in the neighboring Djibouti. The flavour is lighthearted but of profoundly felt emotion. It was popularised by the younger urban population, especially the lorry drivers. It is characterized by condensed imagery of love and nature, expressed in flowing lyrics and emotional language.

This particular brand of ‘poetry’ is not unique to Somalia and Djibouti, or to Eastern Africa. Unwritten songs or spoken words abound throughout the continent, which accompany people in their daily occupations and leisure. For instance, a Tanzanian Nyamwezi lover sings:

My love is soft and tender,
My love Saada comforts me,
My love has a voice like a fine instrument of music…

Whilst elsewhere in East Africa a cheerful love song by a young man goes (how lovely and right!)

All things in nature love one another.
The lips love the teeth,
The beard loves the chin,
And all the little ants go “brrr-r-r-r” together.

Are such songs ‘poetry’? When I embarked on the research that culminated in my Oral Literature in Africa I, like other researchers, had to face this question. The first thing I learnt was that in Africa, songs could indeed be poems: words musicalized. I should not have been surprised, however. Was this not how poetry began? Do we not speak often how equally lovely the words of hymns, Lieder or pop songs are?

So too with African songs, East African or other. When I listen to the sung words, there I find poetry. And all the better for the combination too; the arts that ancient and mediaeval thinkers so rightly joined together in the ancient concept of musica -‘sung words’. And if this is true of them, as of African literature, so too, surely, of Native American, or Indian, or Maori songs.

Sometimes these oral, unwritten, chants seem unappealing however. From the other side of the African continent, but alike in essence, take the opening (English translation) of a Ghanaian dirge:

Grandsire Gyima
with a slim but generous arm …

How – well, unpoetic! But the analysis in Nketia’s ground-breaking Funeral Dirges of the Akan People shows how each word has poetic associations and imagery, giving the whole an intense, emotional, and metaphorical depth.

I suspect that someone unacquainted with English literature would similarly find little poetry in the first line of a Shakespeare sonnet, full of ‘ordinary’ words:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore
So do our minutes hasten to their end; …

Each word and its associations carry poetic weight. It is even more so when, as here, they are brought together in a metric line. Is not that depth and resonance of culturally recognized overtones another characteristic of poetry?

And the sound. When I look at published African poem-songs I want to read them aloud, at least in my mind. Their sound is so lovely. Not just the metre or the rhythm or the music, but the resonances within and between lines, flowing through and bringing sound and sense into the heart.

We surely demand of poetry that it should have something of this depth, of emotion, sound and sense, qualities that draw us somehow into the eternal, the universal. Blake put it so perfectly in his “Auguries of Innocence” – ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand… ‘.

We find this depth in Africa too, east, west, south, north and in unwritten literature throughout the world.

I learnt two other lessons, both from working on my Oral Literature in Africa and, in a more immediate way, in constructing my recent Poems from Black Inked Pearl. First, that the difference that we take for granted between ‘prose’ and ‘poetry’ in our printed-text traditions, is in fact problematic and culture bound: not, as it turns out in practice, contrast but continuum. And second, that multiple factors blend together – some more, some less present, as the case may be – to make up what we might, in the end, label by the felicitous term ‘poetry’.

The former point came across only too clearly to me when faced with the problem of extracting the ‘poetry’ from my prose novel (if it is prose). This posed a startling and unexpected challenge. Interesting too. Surely separating out the poems that studded my novel should be easy? Not so! I knew from my reading about oral literature in Africa, Native America and the South Pacific that the distinction between ‘prose’ and ‘verse’ is a slim one, intersection rather than division. Indeed when I re-read my novel aloud, or go, with ears open, to other examples of ‘poetic prose’ (James Joyce or Walt Whitman or Dylan Thomas, for instance) it often sounds like poetry. Somehow, as with many African stories, it almost all feels like a kind of blank verse.

I learnt that from Sierra Leonian story-telling (Finnegan 1967). Yes there were indeed clearly distinct songs inset in many of the tales – a species of poetry. The rest I took as ‘prose’. But when I listened again to my tapes, too long neglected, – oh, in the descriptive passages what cadences, what melody of phrasing, what – yes, music! Certainly these passages were different from the ‘poems’. But neither were they, apart from the everyday-like dialogues, plain ordinary ‘prose’. They were something in between, a ‘something’ that I then realised is far from unparalleled in the world of verbal art, early or late, east or west.

It is a continuum and an ambiguity not unrelated to the controversy I was once (but thankfully no longer) embroiled in: was there traditionally ‘epic’ (conventionally assumed to be a ‘verse’ form) in Africa, or primarily ‘saga’ (similar or the same stories in prose – see Finnegan 1970/2012, chapter 4). It was a hotly fought battle. But the opposing lines were arguably drawn up on mistaken assumptions: they based themselves on a supposed position between verse and prose opposition, not taking account of continuity and overlap. For a subtle and mind-opening take on this, see the brilliant account in Okpewho 1979. My position was – and still is – that the overlap between verse and prose in ‘spoken’ words is important and inherently necessary in composing the structure and style of the form.

Or take the many praise poems of Africa, so rightly famous. Are they prose or poetry (assuming for the moment that this is indeed a two-fold choice)? The convention in recent years has been to write them in lines – as ‘poetry’. But that has depended almost wholly on the decisions by the transcriber who transformed the spoken (or in this case shouted) words into discrete lines on a printed page. Such a passage as one of the Zulu praise poems could equally be written as piece of dramatically delivered oratory, like this:

The Driver Away of the old man born of Langa’s daughter, the Ever-Ready-to-Meet-Every-Challenge, Shaka! The first born sons…

In the published version we get

The Driver Away of the old man born of Langa’s daughter,
The Ever-Ready-to-Meet-Every-Challenge.
The first born sons… (Grant 1927/9).

Nor is that choice arbitrary. There are the metaphors and images; the traditional poetic praise names with all their rich overtones; the parallelisms and rhythms; the sounded resonant echoing (in the original) of vowel and consonant; the pauses between what can be represented as separate lines; the heightened lofty style of panegyric. And when we have a description of the declaimed mode of delivery with its sense of occasion, its high note, and the special instruments and garb expected of it – why then from these many indications it is easy to conclude that, here, is a species of poetry?

So – it is just a matter of several factors not just one (as we too typographically hooked-up people may imagine: something about jagged right margins). No one can be the decider, it has to be many. Among them we must count the complexity of such interrelated aspects as music, sound, sense, imagery, sonic and poetic associations, repletion at a number of levels, local classification/genre recognition with its accepted poetic conventions; a feeling of beauty and emotional intensity, a sense of universality behind often quite ordinary words: a path for living. All these things, for me, together make up what I wish to call a poem.

But in the end, of course, none of that is enough. No single factor, that is, or even a multiplicity. Whether anywhere in Africa, Asia-Pacific, or Elizabethan England, a poem can only live in the response of the individual soul, the reader, the listener.

Bronislav W. Andrzejewski, ‘The art of the miniature in Somali poetry’, African Languages Review 6, 1967, reprinted in B W Andrzejewski, In Praise of Somali Literature, Callender Press, 2013.
Ruth Finnegan, Limba Stories and Story-Telling, Clarendon Press 1967.
Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa, 2nd edition, Open Book, 2012. (accessible online:
Ruth Finnegan, Black Inked Pearl, a poetic novel, Garn Press, 2015.
Ruth Finnegan, Kate’s Poems from ‘Black Inked Pearl’, Callender Press, 2016.
E W Grant. ‘The izibongo of the Zulu chiefs’, Bantu Studies 3, 1927/9.
J H K Nketia, Funeral Dirges of the Akan, Achimota, 1955 (no publisher)
Hugh Tracey, ‘Behind the lyrics’, African Music 3,2,1963.

This article was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2017: Eastern Africa

Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun | A Review by Elizabeth Olubukola Olaoye

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is better described as a memory, in spite of its status as a notable work of prose. The simple yet depth-imbuing prose of its narration notwithstanding, the text reverberates with recollections of people, places and pulses of events. Steven Rose’s statement that “(m)emories are our most enduring characteristics”[1] plays out so well in the narration of the aging of the female protagonist, Morayo da Silva, a retired English professor living in San Francisco. Crisscrossing Morayo’s memory lane and her present realities in this lucid prose, Sarah Ladipo Manyika proves that memory defines who we are more closely than any other single aspect of our personhood. Seldom however would one consider the barrage of memories that accompanies aging and existence on what is considered the fringe of death as one that is filled with humour, excitement, and optimism. The same way we don’t expect a mule to bring ice cream to the sun, improbable gusto and uncommon emotions drip from the pages of this thought provoking text.

Written from the first person’s point of view of several characters all connected to the protagonist of the narrative, it thrives on the inner workings of the minds of the characters; their dreams, their imaginations, their loves and hatreds as well as their remembering. This is actually more prominent in the life of our seventy-five year old protagonist who the story centres around. Morayo’s life reads like a testament of the human will’s ability to triumph over the dreariest of circumstances even in old age. Her story however thrives on her memory of places she has been, the people she has met, and the books she has read. One aspect of Morayo’s memory that is noteworthy is her memory of her home country Nigeria. Prominent in this regard is her constant reference to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. The city of Lagos has become a prominent feature in several post-millennial Nigerian novels due to its imposing presence in these texts not just as setting but sometimes also as a character in such texts. Lagos has featured in texts like Chris Abani’s Graceland, Sefi Atta Everything Good Will Come, Teju Cole’s Everyday is for the Thief, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon and recently in the crime fiction, Easy Motion Tourist authored by Leye Adenle. What however sets Manyika’s narrative apart from these other texts about Lagos is the beautiful way Lagos features as a contrasting memory to San Franscisco where Morayo lives. For instance, in the opening chapter of the text the protagonist tells us that “when I open the folds of cloth I’m delighted to find the smell of Lagos markets still buried in the cotton-diesel fumes, hot palm oil, burning firewood. The smell evokes the flamboyance craziness of the megacity that was once mine in between my husband’s diplomatic postings.” (p. 4) Morayo’s vivid recollections here contrast sharply with her total forgetfulness at other times.

Apart from her memories with which she struggles at times, Morayo appears anxious about becoming senile. Determined to live life to the fullest, she prepares for her seventy-fifth birthday with several anxieties. Chief among Morayo’s anxieties over aging is her impending driving test which she is not sure to pass due to her failing sight. Communing with books and literary characters like Mrs. Dalloway and Sir Galahad, Morayo reveals more about herself; her idiosyncrasies and her extreme love for literary texts. She seems to place her literary characters on the same pedestal as actual humans and a reader who is not familiar with the texts she refers to might be lost at some point. Dripping with literary allusions, Manyika’s text invites the reader to roam in the wilderness of her literary adventures: English, Caribbean and African literature converge in the memory of Morayo, our aging but elegant protagonist.

We also perceive this aging protagonist’s character through other characters’ who the author bequeaths the gift of voice to. They sometimes illuminate Morayo’s opinions by shedding more light on her convictions and other times, their opinions differ sharply from her own and in a subtle way draw attention to her wrong judgments. Morayo’s divorced husband, Sunshine her young friend, Savage the homeless young woman she meets on the street, and the husband of one of the people she met at the old people’s home where she is recovering from a hip injury after an unexpected fall, all provide alternative versions of Morayo’s reality through their opinion of her.

One thing that however lights this narrative is Morayo’s enthusiasm, her will to remain bright and optimistic in the face of the complex emotions of aging in an individualistic society. Making the most of every acquaintance in San Francisco, she manages to court and value her memories as she learns to let go of uncontrollable circumstances. Morayo’s time in the hospital after a fall, her lost books and her impending inability to drive; seem to challenge her natural optimism. But making the most of these challenges, and even making few more friends in the process, Morayo appears poised to embrace her old age gracefully.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is a delicate dramatization of the complexity of aging; the difficulties, the wrong perceptions, the misunderstandings as well as the pleasures, the joys and the possibilities embedded in it. The protagonist’s life also appears to embrace Taye Selasi’s concept of “Afropolitanism” in her popular essay Bye-Bye, Babar or What Is an Afropolitan? (2005)[2] . Being an Afropolitan, Morayo appears as “a citizen of the world”, made prominent so by what Selasi describes as “New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes”. Packed with positive cross-cultural relations or meetings (the mailman is Chinese, the shopkeeper is Palestinian, her friend Sunshine is Indian, the homeless woman is white), Morayo seems to be a citizen of a world where diversity is strength rather than weakness. Since the narrative is woven around the life of a seventy-five year old African woman, there appears to be an age-bequeathed grace and balance in the analysis of these things. I see this narrative as an eye opener for anyone who is curious about life after retirement for single African women living in the USA.

Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, 2016, Abuja/London: Cassava Republic, ISBN: 978-1-911115-04-5, 118pp.

[1] Steven Rose. The Making of Memory. London: Bantam Books, 1993

[2] Quoted in Rebecca Fasselt’s ““I’m not Afropolitan — I’m of the Continent”: A conversation with Yewande Omotoso” in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 2015, Vol. 50(2) 231 –246.

Elizabeth Olubukola Olaoye