Monthly Archives: December 2017

2017 in Books

It is perhaps rare that you discover a new favourite poet and favourite prose writer in the same year. In 2017, I discovered Zbigniew Herbert and Binyavanga Wainaina. The contained charge of the former and the exuberant word-craft of the latter would have been enough to make this year memorable. In addition, though, I discovered outstanding Filipino writing while traveling to the country, came across more remarkable African writing (this reading year, perhaps, was defined by African writing) and – because of my continuing role with The Strange Horizons magazine – read much more speculative fiction than I would otherwise have inclined to make time for.

Among many discoveries, one stood out: this year, I read some writers who performed some truly dazzling pyrotechnics with language: they made language something physical, something that leapt and danced and sang and consumed you. One was Filipino. Another was Zimbabwean. A third was Indian. And the most brilliant of all was a Kenyan.

Here, as always, is my year-end list, and a rough rating (out of five). The usual riders apply (also note: categories overlap. For example, I read three books of SF by Indian writers, whom I have placed in the SF category instead of the Indian Fiction category).

Indian Fiction

  1. Benyamin, Goat Days (****): This novel – about the travails of a Malayali immigrant to an unnamed Gulf country who ends up herding goats after a case of mistaken identity – became a cult classic in Kerala, and its uncompromising, almost savage, realism tells you why.

African Fiction

  1.  Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o, The River Between (****): Last year, I read and loved The Wizard of the Crow. This year I read and loved The River Between. Similar to Things Fall Apart in its treatment of colonialism and its shattering impact on indigenous practices, I actually found it to be a deeper and more moving treatment of the issues (reviewed here).
  2. Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (***): The timeless classic that I finally got around to reading this year. Short, not always comprehensible (to me), but I could vaguely see what he was trying to do, and an enjoyable read nonetheless.
  3. Dambudzo Marechera, The House of Hunger (*****): One of the stand-out books of the year for me. I came across Marechera while editing a series of interviews of young African SF writers. His prose leaps and burns like tongues of flame. “My dreams still clung defiantly to the steel wire of old memories which I no longer had the power to arrange clearly in my mind.” (Reviewed here.)
  4. Jennifer Makumbi, Kintu (****): This novel is huge in Uganda, and on reading it, it’s easy to see why. Epic in sweep and scope, with the ambition of One Hundred Years of Solitude as well as its magical-realist elements (Yes, I know, cliched comparison), and the literary quality to pull it off. Highly recommended.
  5. Patrice Naganag, Mount Pleasant (***): In terms of the quality of prose, perhaps not quite up there with the novels mentioned above, but nonetheless, a very interesting novel set in colonial Cameroon, on the cusp of far-reaching changes, with multiple narrators and some very moving moments.
  6. Naivo, Beyond the Rice Fields (****): Published this year, the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English. Like The River Between and Things Fall Apart, it too deals with colonialism and its impact on the structure of indigenous society, and heightens the moral conflict by focusing on practices that seem intuitively abhorrent to our sensibilities. Much recommended. (Reviewed here 

African Non-Fiction

  1. Binyavanga Wainaina, One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (*****): No description would do this justice. This memoir about growing up in post-colonial Kenya was, quite simply, the best book I read this year, and one of the best I’ve ever read. Read it. (Reviewed here)
  2. Obi Nwakanma, Christopher Okigbo 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight (****): A moving and brilliant biography of the great Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo, who was tragically killed while still in his 30s, fighting in the Biafran War. One fascinating thing I learnt from this novel was how some of the great figures of 20th century Nigerian writing – Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Christopher Okigbo – among many others – were contemporaries at University College, Ibadan, and remained lifelong friends.

The Philippines

  1. Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tángere (***): The Filipino national novel, whose publication had its author executed and also partly triggered the Filipino revolution against Spain. Not a bad riposte to those who say, with Auden, that “poetry achieves nothing.”
  2. F. Sionil Jose, Dusk (Rosales Saga, #1) (***): Takes up the Filipino story at the point at which Rizal leaves off, dealing with the advent of American colonialism, and the doomed struggle of the Filipinos against the American invasion, told through the eyes of a Filipino family.
  3. Miguel Syjuco, Ilustrado (***): This one’s set in contemporary Philippines and the United States, although its title – Ilustrado – is a nod to the group of early Filipino intellectuals such as Rizal, who attempted to create a national consciousness. A bitter-sweet story, well-told, with an absolutely gut-wrenching twist at the very end.
  4. Nick Joaquin, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic (*****): The stand-out book among the four Filipino works that I read. Joaquin does magnificent things with language, and most of his short story are crafted like fine crystal. As the Preface puts it: “His command of voice, language, and form is absolute. Some of his sentences are like labyrinths that if you pulled a string through, you get this architectonic surety, a marvel… almost maddeningly Manileno, subversively religious, pitch-perfectly bourgeois, preternaturally feminist, historically voracious, Joaquin’s work has a fatality – it simply is.” Strongly recommended. (All four books reviewed here.)

Middle-East and North Africa

  1. Omar Robert Hamilton, The City Always Wins (****): A thinly-fictionalised account of the Egyptian revolution from an actual participant. Very gripping, and an interesting choice of form – first-person narrative interspersed with staccato news bulletins, almost like gunshots.
  2. Habib Sarori, Suslov’s Daughter (***): An interesting Lebanese novel that deals with the faultline between the political left and political Islam in the Middle-East.
  3. Ghada Samman, Farewell, Damascus (***): An unabashedly feminist novel set in the Damascus of the 1960s, with marriage, divorce, and the freedom of women at its heart.

Latin America: Fiction

  1. Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small Winner (****): By times hilarious, and by times very dark, this Portuguese novel set in colonial Brazil has some elements of the Spanish Latin American works that I’m more familiar with, but at the same time, is different in unexpected ways. Recommended.

Latin America: Essays

  1. The Paris Review, Latin American Writers at Work (****): A collection of Paris Review interviews featuring Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Luisa Valenzuela and others. As you’d expect, a very powerful and intense read. What struck me was how closely many of these readers were involved with political movements on the left.

Europe: Fiction

  1. Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels #3) (****): After reading the first two novels of the Neapolitan quartet, I took a year-long time-out to recover. Then I came back and read Books 3 and 4 in two nights. Elena Ferrante, what I can I say?
  2. Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child(The Neapolitan Novels, #4) (****): See above.
  3. Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (*****): With a title like that, how can you be a disappointed? A beautifully broken, almost-aphoristic novel about the aftermath of the Balkan Wars, and the agony of exile. An added bonus are references to Brodsky and Shklovsky, among others. “Here, in Gustav-Meyer Allee, on Saturdays and Sundays, the country that is no more, Bosnia, draws its map once again in the air, with its towns, villages, rivers, and mountains. The map glimmers briefly and then disappears like a soap bubble.” (Reviewed here)
  4. Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment (****): My last book of the year. It didn’t hit me as powerfully as the Neapolitan Quartet, but as ever, there were moments of incoherently painful resonance.

Poetry

  1. Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems, 1956-1998 (*****): I discovered Prague with Zbigniew Herbert, walking around its streets with a copy of the book tucked under my arm, reading it on the sidewalks, in Milan Kundera’s old cafe, by the riverside, and on Petrin Hill. I cannot recall the last time I had a reading experience so distilled and so intense. (Reviewed here)
  2. Mahmoud Darwish, I Don’t Want This Poem to End: Early and Late Poems (*****): Nothing needs to be said.
  3. Ghada Samman, Arab Women in Love & War: Fleeting Eternities (****): Ghada Samman is one of the most interesting intellectual personalities to come out of the mid and late-20th century middle-east, and this book of poems reflects that.

 

Miscellaneous

  1. Alexandra Berlina (editor), Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader (*****): I love everything about Victor Shklovsky – his writing, his literary theory, his intense, passionate life. This Reader, which brings together a chronological collection of his writing, was a brilliant find. The book was full of gems, two of which imprinted themselves in my mind: “Bits of landscape melted into – burned themselves into – Mayakovsky’s poems.  The poet was quiet, sad, ironic, calm. He was sure – he knew – that the revolution would happen soon. He looked at the things around him the way one does then the thing is about to disappear”; and, “all I had instead of a sculptor’s talent was quiet rage and three minutes of inspiration.” (Reviewed here)
  2. Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School (***): A solid and accessible introduction to a philosophical school that has always fascinated me – the Frankfurt critical theorists. Ranges from Walter Benjamin to Jurgen Habermas, and places them in the context of the anti-semitism of the 20th century, the Second World War, and the post-war liberal order.
  3. Said Samatar, Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayid Mahammad ‘Abdille Hasan (****): I came across this book from a very weird source – by learning that Sofia Samatar’s father was a respected academic, and had worked on oral poetry. It was a great find – a very interesting account of the role of poetry in building Somali nationalism, almost like a non-fiction version of an Ismail Kadare novel.

Speculative Fiction

  1. Ian McDonald, River of Gods (***): I reviewed this for The Mithila Review. An imaginative near-future novel set in a Balkanised India rent apart by religious conflict and water-wars, but with some flaws when it comes to convincing world-building.
  2. L. Timmel Duchamp, The Waterdancer’s World (***): A solid effort by the veteran writer, tackling themes such as pregnancy and childbirth, which are often neglected by contemporary SF. (Reviewed here).
  3. Prayaag Akbar, Leila: A Novel (****): Brilliant, haunting, terrifying novel about an India that is looming over the horizon … or is already here. Echoes of Atwood, but really, a stand-alone work (Reviewed here)
  4. Basma Abdel-Aziz, The Queue (****): Another one on the Egyptian revolution – this one a dark, pessimistic tale about a “Gate” that comes to life and rules a nameless city, forcing people to form a never-ending queue about it. Instantly recognisable. (Reviewed here)
  5. Yoon Ha-Lee, Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1) (***): A far-future galaxy held together by consensus-reality. Characterised by some truly stunning imagery, and world-building complex enough to want to make me wait for a sequel.
  6. Emma Newman, After Atlas (****): A chilling – and brilliant – near-future SF story involving the complete loss of personal privacy.
  7. Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit(Wayfarers, #2) (***): A sensitive exploration of that perennial SF theme – the human/AI relationship.
  8. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (****): A powerful, visceral novel abut escape from slave-state America; imagines the existence of an actual “underground railroad” (which was a 19th-century metaphor for escape routes).
  9. Tricia Sullivan, Occupy Me (***): More interesting (this time near-future) stuff involving humans and AI, this with a sweep that suddenly exploded into galactic proportions.
  10. Lavie Tidhar, Central Station (****): One of my favourite SF works from this year – a set of short stories set around Central Station, a space-port located above historical Tel Aviv, and involving some very beautiful and moving reflection on what it means to be human.
  11. Deepak Unnikrishnan, Temporary People (****): This is like an SF version of Benyamin’s Goat Days. A book about the experiences of Malayali immigrants to the gulf, but through the darkly playful lens of magical realism. What really stands out is how Unnikrishnan treats language – malleable, ductile, and with infectious exuberance. Recommended. (Reviewed here)
  12. Tashan Mehta, The Liar’s Weave (****): A rollicking SF novel set in 1920s Bombay, featuring astrologers and forest-worlds, with some excellent imagery. (Reviewed here)

 

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“… like shards of water and streams of glass”: Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place”

I have always enjoyed reading writers’ memoirs, writers’ diaries, and writers’ thinly-autobiographical fiction. Some of my favourites include Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude, where I found acute and subtle portraits of the character of a nation; Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country, where I discovered a haunting political elegy; Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, where I met a stinging literary critique of Negritude and Ngugi wa’ Thiong’o’s idea of language and literature; and Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler, where I traveled second-hand through some of the most brilliant landscapes imaginable.

In Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, I found all this and more.

One Day I Will Write About This Place is a story about growing up in newly-independent, post-colonial Kenya. Wainaina tells two stories: the fraught relationship between democracy and the post-colony (not just in Kenya, but in other African countries as well) through the course of the late-20th century, and his own circuitous, round-about and peril-filled journey to becoming a writer of repute and influence. “Uganda, my mum’s country, fell down and broke. Crutch!”, he writes in the opening pages; and that could be an image for the book: falling, breaking, patching up, refusing to fall, falling, breaking again. From Kenya under Daniel arap Moi to South Africa on the cusp of dismantling apartheid to Uganda recovering from the wounds of civil war to Kenya again during the pivotal elections of 2002, Wainaina moves through bits of countries and pieces of the self, always afraid of being hijacked by patterns”, as he and his comrades seek “new ways to contort, rearrange, redesign ourselves to fit in.”

Right from the first scene – a recollection of a backyard football game from childhood – we are put on notice that this will be something out of the ordinary:

She twists past Jimmy, the ball ahead of her feet, heading for me. I am ready. I am sharp, and springy. I am waiting for the ball. Jimmy runs to intercept her; they tangle and pant. A few moments ago the sun was one single white beam. Now it has fallen into the trees. All over the garden there are a thousand tiny suns, poking through gaps, all of them spherical, all of them shooting thousands of beams. The beams fall onto branches and leaves and splinter into thousands of smaller perfect suns.

Wainaina’s memoir bursts at the seams with such rich, exultant, and alive use of language. You rarely feel as if you’re merely reading; rather, it is as though all five senses are activated: you can taste the writing when you read “there is an ache in my chest today, sweet, searching, and painful, like a tongue that is cut and tingles with sweetness and pain after eating a strong pineapple”; you can hear it when you read “his voice carrying Yemeni monsoons and bolts of cloth“; you can smell it when he writes, “life has urgency when it stands around death. There is no grass as beautiful as the blades that stick out after the first rain”; you can see it with all the clarity of a vision when he writes “street upon street of Kenyan shops and textile factories stand disemboweled by the death of faith in a common future“; you can feel your skin in this remarkable passage:

She pours me a drink, she laughs, and I find myself laughing too, like we did when we were young. Twin Salvation Army marching bands on a hot dry Sunday in my hometown, Nakuru, Kenya. They bang their way up the sides of my head and meet at some crossroads in my temple, now out of rhythm with each other. I am thirsty with the effort of them, but my body is an accordion, and can’t find the resolution to stand.”

And sometimes, when the prose has a peculiar quality of motion, you can feel more than one thing: “Russet is an emotion inside me that comes from reading things about horses and manes, and many hairs tossing, and autumn, a set of impressions, movements, lights. These are my concerns.” Wainaina recalls, as a child, contemplating his own thirst after the game of football, and being unable to match the word (“thirst”) to something concrete. “Words, I think, must be concrete things. Surely they cannot be suggestions of things, vague pictures: scattered, shifting sensations?” This brings to mind Italo Calvino’s observation about words as “foretastes of things barely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed.” Just as that is an apt account of Calvino’s writing, so is it of Wainaina’s: his language s never descriptive, but always suggestive, possessing a movement that never allows you to see a thing clearly and see it whole, but rather, as an ensemble of “scattered, shifting sensations.” Or, in his own words, when talking about the landscape from a car window:

I am disappointed that all the distant scenery, blue and misty, becomes more and more real as I come closer: there is no vague place, where clarity blurs, where certainty has no force, and dreams are real.

In Wainaina’s writing, you always remain in that vague place – and delightfully so. The writing is not only suggestive, but atmospheric, almost physical in its suggestiveness:

The song comes to a full stop. A full three seconds of silence as rumba momentum builds. The choral voices are now a sheet of frenzied rubber, Kenya streeeeectches and bleats, held together by the military trumpets and cash crop exports, the future, only the future, laboring bodies, a railway, a mpresident.

The result is that even the darkest of themes (and darkness is inevitably, given the subject matter) are handled with the lightness of what Colm Toibin would call “breath on glass.” The style is a complete contrast from, for example, Chinua Achebe’s elegy to Biafra in There Was A Country, even though both writers are talking about similar issues, at times: betrayed democracy, political violence, widespread dehumanisation in the post-colony. If sadness is the defining quality of Achebe’s work, it is wryness that characterises Wainaina’s. There is a refusal to take anything too seriously – neither the self, not politics, nor the nation. What we get, then, is a treatment that is almost savage in its mockery:

Moi and his cronies are on the radio daily. It is in the papers every day. These are dark days, we are told. There are dissidents everywhere. We have to all unite and silence the dissidents. From the radio, we know that foreign influenzes are invecting us, secret foreign influenzes are infringing us, invincing us, perferting our gildren, preaking our gultural moralities, our ancient filosofies, the dissidents are bushing and bulling, pringing segret Kurly Marxes and Michael Jagsons, making us backsliding robots, and our land is becoming moonar handscapes. They took the rain away, the Maxists, the Ugandans, wearing Western mini sguirts and makeup, they are importing them, inserting invected people, these dissidents, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and that man called Raila Oginga Odinga.

There is a similarity here with Emile Habiby’s The Adventures of Saeed the Pessoptimist. Habiby’s chosen mode of dealing with the dispossession of the Palestinian people is not grim realism, an elegiac lament, or even satire; but it is a wry, mild, almost gentle self-effacement that, in its deconstruction of the senselessness of violence and cruelty, is no less sharp:

The big man sent his own men to surprise me at my stall one noon. They led me off to prison after charging me publicly with having disobeyed the compulsory stay order. My going to Shafa Amr to buy melons, they said, had threatened the integrity of the state. Whoever, as they put it, transported red melons in secret could also carry radishes secretly and there was, after all, only a difference in colour between red radishes and hand grenades! And red was not, under any circumstances, the same as blue and white. With a watermelon, moreover, one could blow up a whole regiment if grenades were hidden inside it. “Don’t you see that, you mule?”

“But I cut the melons open with a knife so the buyer can see,” the “mule” responded.

“Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed.

But just like Habiby, there are moments when Wainaina abandons the self-effacing, almost playful tone, and essays a sudden foray into seriousness. These moments occur when he talks about the IMF-mandated dismantling of Kenya’s public education system, about the tribalism that dominates politics, and about how Kenyans – especially Kenyan artists – are forced to represent themselves to the Western world (a subject that he has also dealt with in this wildly famous essay). Their rarity invests them with a moral force, a gravity that compels the reader to pause, think, and then read again. And then Wainaina goes back to image, metaphor, and suggestion, reminding us that even the deepest of wounds can be written about without anger, without mourning, without even irony, but something else altogether:

Wood rots. Wood will not bend in heat. Wood burns and crumbles. Early this century. The searing heat of Belgium’s lust in the Congo insists on new metallic people. We, in Kenya, don’t understand the lyrics – we don’t speak Lingala – but this music, this style, this metallic sound has become the sound of our times.

Or:

Our schooling machine – nationwide, merit-based, proud, and competitive – Kenya’s single biggest investment – is falling apart, and the new season sounds like Band Aid. It’s all over CNN. Open mouths and music, thousands and thousands of white people throwing food and tears and happiness to naked, writhing Africans who can’t speak, don’t have dreams, and share leftovers with vultures.

This should not give the impression, however, that One Day I Will Write About This Place is limited to the troubles of the post-colonial era. Many of the books best moments are celebratory – whether it is celebrating a South African singer, the instant of hope in South Africa ’94, Wainaina’s winning the Caine Prize, or the optimism that seeps through even during factionalised Kenyan elections. Indeed, as Wainaina writes, “if there is a miracle in the idea of life, it is this: that we are able to exist for a time, in defiance of chaos.”

But above all else, what makes this book is its use of language, the wizardry that Wainaina has in putting words together in an assemblage that make them feel more real than life itself. “None of us has her voice,” he writes about his mother. “It tingles.  If crystal were water made solid, her voice would be the last splash of water before it set.” He might well have been describing his own writing.

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