Archive for the ‘African Literature’ Category

I wanted to read Wayétu Moore’s novel ‘She Would be King‘, but when I discovered that she has written a memoir, I wanted to read that first. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘ and for ‘Read Indies’.

‘Read Indies’ is an annual event hosted by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Lizzy (from Lizzy’s Literary Life), which promotes independent publishers and runs through the whole of February. ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women’ is published by ONE, which is an imprint of Pushkin Press.

The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘ starts with the story happening in Liberia. It is narrated by the five-year old Wayétu Moore. We discover that her mom is in America and she and her sisters are living with her dad. Civil war breaks out in Liberia, and Wayétu Moore and her family have to flee their home. What happens to them is told in the rest of the book.

The book is divided into multiple parts. The first part, which is the longest part of the book, is narrated in the voice of the five-year old Wayétu Moore. That voice is beautiful, charming and authentic. I loved it. That was my favourite part of the book. Then the story shifts to the present say, and it is narrated by thirty-something Wayétu Moore. Then at some point, the story moves back to the past and continues from where it left off at the end of the first part and we hear the story through the voice of Wayétu Moore’s mom. And then the story is continued by today’s Wayétu Moore while she describes the events of the past, and the pages fly by and the tension increases, as the last part reads like a thriller.

I loved the first part of the book. It was my favourite. I also loved the last two parts which carried on the story which was told in the first part. The part in between was different – the voice was different, the themes were different. It talked about Wayétu Moore’s life in America as an African immigrant and the discrimination she suffers. What that part talked about is important, but it didn’t hang well with the rest of the book. It felt like Wayétu Moore decided to write another book in the middle of the first book. Maybe this middle part deserved a book of its own.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘. ‘Enjoyed’ is probably not the right word, as the story describes war and suffering. Liberia is a complex country with a complex history, and I learnt some of it through Moore’s book. It is so unbelievable that all this happened. When I read these lines on the last page of the book –

“My Ol’ Ma says the best stories do not always end happily, but happiness will find its way in there somehow. She says that some will bend many times like the fisher’s wire. Some make the children laugh. Some make even the Ol’ Pas cry. Some the griots will take a long time to tell, but like plums left in the sun for too long, they too are sweet to taste.

Suffering is a part of everyone’s story. As long as my Ol’ Ma is here, and I am here, as long as I become an Ol’ Ma myself and my children’s children become Ol’ Mas and Ol’ Pas, there will be rainy seasons and dry seasons too long to bear, where troubles pile up like coal to burn you to dust. But just like suffering makes its bed in these seasons, so does happiness, however brief, however fleeting.

There are many stories of war to tell. You will hear them all. But remember among those who were lost, some made it through. Among the dragons there will always be heroes. Even there. Even then. And of those tales ending in defeat, tales of death and orphans wandering among the ruined, some ended the other way too.”

– when I read this, I cried.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The restlessness made a home on my shoulders, tormenting me as the day went on. This was the other side of love. Love gone is painful, and I existed in that grief…But love almost gone — the lurking threat of loss — that was a daily torture, death realized every morning.”

“An Ol’ Ma, a grand-aunt maybe, told us that all of our dead and missing were resting peacefully in wandering clouds, and when it rains and you listen closely you can hear the things they forgot to tell you before leaving.”

“We had been together for two years, all of which were long distance. Long-distance relationships begin beautifully, end suddenly, sometimes by accident, and thereafter smoke rises not because all is burned to ashes but because there is always something left in the pipe…The Ol’ Mas did not tell us that you could not throw away love once it was finished. That it would remain on us like blackened scars, under neath blouses and in those places only we could see. That we would reach a point where it, once solid, would melt in our hands and we would never fully wash off its residue; and that some love, the truest love, also the most dangerous, could disfigure our core.”

“I thought of Mam in that moment. She had taught me many things, and at times, especially during those teenage years of promising her I would move far away to New York as soon as I got my diploma, she was more than I deserved. She taught me how to cook, how to write, my posture, how to care for a home, how to love God, how to read. She taught me politeness, creativity, how to write a letter, especially to those who had offended me. How to pray, how to fold clothes, how to love my sisters, how to love my brothers, how to love myself. She taught me about women—how to be one, how to know them, how to befriend them, how to give advice and love them, and how some would betray me because they saw kindness as weakness, and at the first sign of such brutality I should walk away, for such women did not even love themselves. That not all who chose to be around me liked me. That some knew too well how to pretend, and they would raise daughters with these doctrines, so I should remember her words and the words of my Ol’ Mas to raise mine. And some would raise sons they did not want to let go of, and would handle them like marionettes, and I should be careful never to sit in the audience of such a show for too long.

But there were things I went into the world not knowing. We did not talk about what to do when a boy was unkind, in words or actions, breaking my heart. I was lousy in the ways of healing. Mam had one true love and she married him. She had one true love in a country of women like her, whose sun took turns resting on their deep, dark skin. My true loves in our new country, by either inheritance or indoctrination, were taught that black women were the least among them. Loving me was an act of resistance, though many did not know it. And Mam could not understand this feeling, the heaviness of it, to be loved as resistance, as an exception to a rule. To fight to be seen in love, to stay in love throughout the resistance. This was my new country.”

Have you read ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I discovered ‘Black Foam‘ by Haji Jabir recently. It looked quite fascinating and so I decided to read it. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘.

The main character in ‘Black Foam‘ is a man who seems to be homeless, rootless. As we read the story, we discover that he is a young Eritrean soldier on the eve of Eritrea’s independence. Circumstances change for him after a while and he has to flee his country and he is on the run. He ends up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He changes his identity – his name and his religion – and from Dawoud, he becomes David. When things don’t go well for him at the refugee camp, he changes his name again to Dawit, somehow gets into a Jewish community, and migrates to Israel. What happens to this man, who belongs nowhere, or rather who belongs everywhere, is told in the rest of the story.

This is my first book by an Eritrean author and I found it very fascinating. The author is Eritrean, the book is written in Arabic, and the story happens in three places, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Israel – all these together made it a very unusual and fascinating book. At some point we read this passage in the book –

“He wasn’t asking for much: he just wanted to survive, live a normal life, wake up, sleep, love and have children, and then die in his bed. He wasn’t asking for more.”

It is such a simple life to wish for. The main character just wants this. But this is hard. For him, this is almost impossible. He has to change his identity, his name, his religion, his language, his country, and still this simple life is out of his reach. There is a famous place in Jerusalem where there is a ladder against a building. The ladder is short and is not able to reach the window. This ladder and window have been there like this for 300 years. It is described in the book. The main character’s life is like that. Inspite of reinventing himself multiple times, he ends up being like the ladder, which never reaches the window, which is the simple life he yearns for. It is heartbreaking.

This book asks big profound questions on who we are as individuals and humans – whether we really have an identity or whether it is all just a fleeting thing which can be changed at will, whether we belong anywhere, or we belong nowhere, or maybe we belong everywhere. It made me think a lot.

I enjoyed reading ‘Black Foam‘. It is an important book for our times. It is the first book I’ve read which is written by a black writer in Arabic. Black writer, writing in Arabic, translated into English – this is as diverse as it can get.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“An idea he had often entertained popped back into his mind—that Eritreans didn’t know anger, that they only grieved and were broken and withdrew, while never losing their temper. For the oppressed, anger was a luxury, and between them and anger there stood a fence of humiliation and oppression. Anger was an act of will, and the oppressed had no will and no ability to make decisions. He wanted to explain all of that to her…”

“Each time, he got deeper into the construction of his story, making many unnecessary embellishments. He usually didn’t like this method since this way he wasn’t the owner and master of the story. Instead, it became the property of his listeners. Storytelling was a dangerous game, and the tale could slip from your hands at just the moment you thought it was fully yours. Still, he felt this was a good test of his ability to narrate, or rather to fabricate. After all, narration was fabrication. Anything else was just a poor imitation, merely passing on a story made up by someone else.”

“Then suddenly she lifted her head and asked : “By the way, which of your names would you like me to call you?” The question threw him into confusion. Should he say Dawoud, with all the defeats and losses that old name carried? Or should he choose David, a newer name, yet with as many bitter experiences? Or should he stick with the infant Dawit, without knowing for sure whether it was any different from its predecessors? He couldn’t get rid of these names and everything they carried. Each one was a weight that dragged behind him, like a cupboard full of memories, and he couldn’t seem to pass by any bit of anguish without storing it inside them. He didn’t know if he gave each name its wretched shape and features or whether it was the other way around. What he did know was that his many names were a lot like him, a good fit for him and his amputated life. These names, which he had wanted to save him, had instead become a burden. It occurred to him that, even if he continued to switch between all the names, it wouldn’t change his fate. Thus, he felt a little more charitable toward the names since the jinx was part of his destiny. Names were just rags, after all; they couldn’t hide his fate. He surfaced from his confusion and told her to call him whatever she wanted.”

Have you read ‘Black Foam‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I got Maaza Mengiste’s first novel ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’ many years back, when it first came out. I was waiting for the right time to read it. It looks like now is the right time. I read this for Black History Month.

The story told in ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ is set sometime in 1974. Haile Selassie is still the Emperor of Ethiopia. But there is unrest brewing in the country. There is a famine in parts of the country. Students and other people protest against the government for not helping those suffering from the famine. Parts of the army protest against the government for higher pay. We see all this through the eyes of one family and their friends. The head of the family is a doctor. His wife is unwell right now. His eldest son is a professor. His youngest son is a student who is one of the protestors against the government. What happens when this family is swept away by historical events over which they have no control forms the rest of the story.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ is a fascinating introduction to Ethiopian history of the 1970s, when great, terrible events overtook the country. Though it is a work of fiction, the story feels very real, and the author has done her research well. For me the book felt very personal. I spent my childhood in Ethiopia, and when I read names like Almaz, Kifle, Amman, Dawit and places like Arat Kilo, Sidist Kilo, Mercato, I cried, because those were all names I knew, and those were all places I’ve been to. We had a family friend called Almaz who was like a big sister to me. Yayehyerad Kifle was one of my best friends (we used to call him Mamush. Mamush was a kind of pet name for many Ethiopian boys.) Amman was another friend of mine. He told me that he was named after the great Ethiopian general. There was an old Italian man who used to live in Amman’s house, probably his grandmother’s boyfriend, who stayed back after the Italians left after the Second World War. He had an old Second World War Italian motorcycle, and every year he used to service it and get it ready and then ride it on the streets, and we kids used to run after him. Dawit (Ethiopian version of David) was the name of the son of one of my mom’s friends. The school my dad used to work in, Menelik School, was located at Arat Kilo. Mercato was a bustling market, and I’ve been there many times. So reading the book took me back across time and made me relive my own experiences.

During the time period that the story is set, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by the military and then killed. (The Ethiopian military probably followed the French and Russian playbook – kill the king and all his relatives. The only guys who did it differently and which had interesting results, were the Chinese. They put the emperor through a ‘re-education’ programme, and then offered him a government job. He became a government employee, lived life like a regular person, and retired as a government employee. It was almost like a Kafka story.) The military dictatorship called the Derg took over, imposed a communist totalitarian rule across the country, banned private property, and the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam eliminated all his critics and opponents. This book describes how rebels were shot dead and their bodies were thrown on the streets as a warning to other rebels and people who wanted to protest against the government. I can’t remember any of this from my childhood though. My childhood was filled with regular childhood stuff – going to school, coming back home, making my parents’ lives challenging, playing football with my friends on the streets, or doing crazy stuff like climbing water tanks like a monkey. I don’t remember gun battles on the streets and people being shot dead and bodies being thrown on the main streets. On one or two occasions, I remember soldiers carrying stenguns knocked at our door and searched our apartment. My dad said later that they do this everytime there is a coup. I remember the soldiers being polite and nice. It all felt like an adventure to me.

So the book was a big surprise to me, of course. I didn’t know that the horrors that were mentioned in the book had happened. I can’t believe that I had lived in the middle of it. My dad went to work in Ethiopia when the Emperor was still around, and he continued to work there after the coup when the military took over. A year after my dad came back, the Derg dictatorship was overthrown and Mengistu Haile Mariam fled the country. I need to talk to my dad and find out how things were at that time, especially at the time of the coup and the years after that, when things were really hard and the government of that time did unspeakable things. When you are living in another country, you are mostly living in a bubble, and you never know what is happening to a local citizen and what kind of pressure and fear they are living through. I think that is what happened to my family and others like mine. But my dad taught Ethiopian and African history and so he probably knew better. Need to talk to him soon.

I enjoyed reading ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ though it was mostly heartbreaking to read. I’m looking forward to reading Maaza Mengiste’s next book ‘The Shadow King‘ soon.

Have you read ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »

I was inspired by one of my friends to read Amos Tutuola’sThe Palm-Wine Drinkard‘. I read this for #ReadIndies hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. ‘The Palm-Wine Drinkard’ is published by Faber & Faber, one of the oldest indie publishers around. (I didn’t even know that Faber & Faber was an indie publisher, till recently!)

The narrator of the story is a young man who likes drinking palm-wine. So his dad gets him a whole farm filled with palms and hires a special palm-wine tapster for him. The tapster brings him palm-wine everyday and our narrator enjoys drinking it. But one day, the tapster falls from a tree and dies. Now there is no one to tap the wine. Our narrator misses the delicious palm-wine and the tapster and he decides to go in search of the tapster and get him back. The tapster is dead, of course. So, this can mean only one thing. Our narrator has to go to the land of the dead. Before that, he has to find out where this land is. What follows is an amazing series of adventures, as our narrator has one exciting experience after another, meets interesting people and strange creatures, performs one impossible task after another, escapes from impossible situations, even saves a princess (or someone like a princess) from a wicked creature. Whether he accomplishes his original goal and is able to get back the wine tapster – you have to read the book to find that.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard‘ is a fascinating book. It is a combination of folktale, fantasy, magic, mythology. As we follow the narrator’s adventures, the pages just fly. The narrator’s voice is charming and bubbles with energy, and it made me smile throughout, as the narrator describes how he gets into one scrape after another. Amos Tutuola’s prose is very unique. He adapts and shapes and modifies language to bring out the narrator’s voice in a natural way, and it is such a pleasure to read. I read the title as ‘The Palm-Wine Drunkard’, but after reading the introduction to the book by Wole Soyinka, I discovered that it was not ‘drunkard’ but ‘drinkard’. Soyinka explains this in his introduction –

“What an imaginative rupture of spelling, to have turned a negative association into a thing of acceptance, if not exactly approval. Not ‘drunkard’ but – ‘drinkard’. Difficult to damn ‘drinkinness’ with the same moralistic fervour as drunkenness.”

I discovered that when Tutola tried publishing the book, the editors attempted to change the English to make it more grammatically correct. I’m glad they didn’t do that in the end, because Amos Tutuola’s version of English is perfect for the story. The story is just around 110 pages long, and it is over before we know it. Wish it was longer. ‘The Palm-Wine Drinkard’ was published in 1952, much before Chinua Achebe’s first book. I’m wondering whether Amos Tutuola was the first Nigerian / African author to get international acclaim. If that was the case, he is a pioneer.

I loved ‘The Palm-Wine Drinkard’. I’m hoping to explore more of Amos Tutuola’s work.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

Read Full Post »