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“If light had a sound, it would be Salia’s voice…”: A round-up of African Writing

For the last few months, I have been editing a series of interviews titled 100 African Writers of SFF,  over at the Strange Horizons magazine. While the interviewees are writers of science fiction and fantasy, the conversations have been naturally broad-ranging, involving discussions of contemporary African writing that goes much beyond SFF. Some of the references have been tantalising enough for me to track them down, and buy and read the books themselves. Quick notes follow:

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms is a sensitive, empathetic – and, ultimately – tragic novel, set in the outskirts of Abuja (and sometimes transitioning to the conflict-torn city of Jos). Binta Zubairu, the novel’s protagonist, is a fifty-five-year-old widowed grandmother, survivor of a loveless marriage and the violent loss of her oldest child, and long reconciled to a cloistered existence and a slow exit from the world. All that changes when Hassan Reza, the local gang-leader and drug-dealer, jumps the fence intending to rob her, but falls in love with her instead. Through the course of their transgressive relationship, always teetering on the edge and threatening to come undone, either through the public discovery of Binta’s defiance of social norms or through Hassan’s one-brush-too-many with the law, Ibrahim brilliantly depicts both the suffocating, one-sided sexual repression that corrodes a conservative society, and its inevitable flip side – political violence.

For all its sensitivity, there is very little of the sentimental in Ibrahim’s novel. His account of human relationships is grimly realistic. Love is portrayed in all its messiness, confusions, and petty betrayals, a distinctly earthy emotion. And yet, there is a strangely suppressed lyrical quality to the prose, that almost struggles to make itself heard:

She dreamt like sepia. Like rust-tainted water running over the snapshots of her memories, submerging her dreams in a stream of reddish-brown. (p. 76)

This is immediately followed by memories of blood and violence (recollecting the murder of her son), as though to give way to lyricism is almost to insult the reality of the world (“What poetry after Auschwitz?”). In the riven worlds of Abuja and Jos, where even bare life cannot be taken for granted, love is not – and cannot be – an exception.

Other reviews: The Guardian;  The African Writer

Odafe Atogun’s Taduno’s Song: Also out of Nigeria, here comes a much bleaker and darker novel. Taduno’s Song is a thinly fictionalised story about the legendary Fela Kuti, the Nigerian composer and singer who critiqued both colonialism and the post-colonial State through his music, and was violently targeted for it.  The eponymous Taduno is a dissident singer, who is exiled by the President of his  repressive one-party State. On returning from exile, he finds that his existence has been completely erased from the memories of his fellow-citizens, and even from the memory of the regime and the President – who, suspecting a trick, has decided to hold his partner in secret custody until he is found. With his vocal cords damaged in an earlier police beating, Taduno struggles to recapture his voice and regain his identity, so that he can save his partner. The quest takes him through the city of his childhood and youth, the neighbourhoods that knew and now disown him, the mansions of the rich and the squares of the homeless, and the underground prisons of “Mr. President.”

The austere, pared-back prose and imagery of Taduno’s Song, with its small cast of characters, its refusal to identify its setting in any concrete manner, and its grimly linear trajectory, is reminiscent of Kossi Efoui’s The Shadow of Things to Comeanother “dictator novel” from nearby Togo. The novel’s minimalism sharpens the focus on its single, key theme – the limits of human resistance to concentrated power. Like Season of Crimson BlossomsTaduno’s Song is also a novel tinged with tragedy – but also like Season of Crimson Blossoms, its sensitive account of how an individual struggles against power prevents it from being overwhelmed by tragedy, even if the outcome seems foreordained.

Other reviews: The Financial TimesIndirect Libre.

Out of South Africa, Nthikend Mohlele’s Rusty Bell is something altogether different. This is a coming-of-novel, whose combination of exuberance, self-deprecation, and linguistic pyrotechnics reminded me of Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place. The narrator – a young, black, South African man – takes us through noisy post-Apartheid South Africa, predominantly through a series of exchanges with his psychiatrist (no, it’s not written as a metaphor for the nation), but also through failed love-affairs, parental discord, and a surprise narrative appearance by a cat. Jagged, unorganised, and almost aphoristic at times, the prose shines brokenly like sunlight reflected off shattered glass. In the midst of which, however, you find passages like this:

Frank could have been a great banker, one of the greatest, if he hadn’t been born at the wrong time and with the wrong skin colour. His acumen with money, his softest of hearts, did not earn him a cushioned life in the South Africa of then and of now. There was a measured pride about him, though, a discreet pride in how he chose to love a world that showered him with doubt and disdain. For as long as I can remember, my father worked as a delivery man for Almond S. Spender Pharmaceuticals, criss-crossing Johannesburg’s avenues, responding to ailments of suburbs and, for extra income, weekend shifts transporting ‘Urgent Medical Samples’ for hospitals.

It was from this – what he called life’s tragic pranks – that he managed to put me through school, that chinks appeared in his quiet pride, fissures that made his thoughts drift, prompting that heavy sigh and yearning: ‘I would have loved to fly aeroplanes, Michael.’ He later joined Harmony Gas & Fuels as a man who fought to be master of his life, but who instead helplessly watched as life and history drained all that was supposed to make life pleasurable, a drop at a time. His was a life not lived, but leaked away, soundless, in the single-roomed tin shack we called home.

As far as love goes – untainted, ocean-current love – none comes close to the one I witnessed in our one-room shack in Alexandra. It was not the kind depicted in lifestyle magazines: of walks along sunny boulevards, boat cruises on blue oceans, nose rubbing in restaurants. It was not, though it had a poetic glow, love spoken about by forlorn poets, not one of horse riding and romantic bicycle excursions into the countryside, not burdened by visits to the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. It was a love that had learned to ridicule lack, a brazen kind of feeling, resolute, daring even, so ahead of earthly imperfections that it seemed otherworldly: that silent hand holding of theirs, that drinking from one coffee mug when sugar was in short supply…”

This is beautiful writing. It is as though every word has been strained through a sieve.

I came across an excerpt from Rusty Bell and a short story by Ihrahim in a remarkable book called Africa39, which I found lying around in Blossoms Bookshop at Bangalore, last summer. Africa39 is a 2014 collection of thirty-nine short stories or novel excerpts from African writers “South of the Sahara.” The quality is stupendously high, and the collection has a beautiful Introduction by Wole Soyinka, who refers to Mandela’s frisson-inducing line about how reading Chinua Achebe made “the prison walls fall down”, and follows it up with this lush description:

One of my favourite browsing grounds remains, unrepentantly, the garbage dump, or, to put it more elegantly – the flea market, especially of books. Those rows and jumbled stalls and trestles of broned, dog-eared second-hand books, pages frayed with age, evocative of contemplative, even escapist hours in the company of unknown faces, redolent of distant places and exotic adventures both of mind and body – such musty, unruly way stops have the edge, for me, even over the fragrance of newly-minted volumes on tidy rows of antiseptic shelves, with careful labelling under subject matter, author, geography etc. You never know what you will find in the flea market!

To an Indian, this resonates, doesn’t it?

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Filed under Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, African Writing, Nigeria, Nthikend Mohlele, Odafe Atogun

Round-up: Machado de Assis and Jennifer Makumbi

Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small WinnerThis novel is dedicated to “the first worm that gnawed at my flesh.” That is not a metaphor: Epitaph of a Small Winner is the fictional memoir of Braz Cubas, a late-19th century wealthy Brazilian man, and is written (literally) from beyond the grave: a posthumous memoir, so to say. That sets the tone for some truly dazzling flights of fancy, presaged by the following warning on page 10:

“The reader, like his fellows, doubtless prefers action to reflection, and doubtless he is wholly in the right. Se we shall get to it. However, I must advise him that this book is written leisurely, with the leisureliness of a man no longer troubled by the flight of time; that it is a work supinely philosophical, but of a philosophy wanting in uniformity, now austere, now playful, a thing that neither edifies nor destroys, neither inflames nor chills, and that is at once more than pastime and less than preachment.”  

Braz Cubas takes us through his misspent youth at the University of Coimbra (“I was a harebrained scholar, superficial, tumultuous, and capricious, fond of adventures of all kinds, engaging in practical romanticism and theoretical liberalism, with complete faith in dark eyes and written constitutions…“), his early-adult melancholy at the passing of his mother (“I believe that it was then that the flower of melancholy in me began to open, this yellow, lonely, morbid flower with its subtle and inebriating perfume…”), early failures in love, and then dedicates most of the memoir to a tumultuous and caustically adulterous affair with the wife of an ambitious minor politician. The narrative is fragmented, meandering, often self-referential and full of all kinds of digressions, but sustained by a lightness of tone and a conspicuous refusal to take anything – life, love, death, politics, the world – too seriously.

Beneath the lightness of tone, however, lies an unsparing, almost savage critique of social institutions, human vanity, and human conceit(s). Sometimes, this rises to the surface in an offhand, blink-or-you’ll miss it manner (“…but if you have a profound and perspicacious mind (and I strongly suspect that you will not deny this)…”), while at other times it takes the form of a lengthier digression, which might be straight out of The Devil’s Dictionary:

“I like epitaphs; among civilized people they are an expression of a secret and pious egoism that leads men to try and rescue form death at least a shred of the soul that has passed on, with the expectation that the same will be done for them.”

Or:

“As his manner was very sharp, he had enemies who accused him of barbarity. The only fact alleged to support this charge was that he frequently committed slaves to the dungeon and that they were always dripping blood when released; but, apart from the fact that he did this only to fugitives and incorrigibles, one must remember that, as he had long been engaged in smuggling slaves into the country, he had become accustomed to long-established methods of treatment that were somewhat harsher than those practiced in the regular slave trade, and one cannot honestly attribute to a man’s basic character something that is obviously the result of a social pattern.”

There is a particularly acute deconstruction of male vanity, which has all the markings of a proto-feminist critique (“… but the man, considering himself the irresistible cause of the [adulterous] affair and the vanquisher of the other man, becomes rightfully proud…”), and moments of sudden, serious depth, that stand out because of the contrast with the rest of the novel (“at dusk one seeks in vain the fresh exhalations of the morning…”).

In its epigrammatic quick-wittedness, Epitaph of a Small Winner is reminiscent of passages from Assis’ contemporary, Oscar Wilde; in its jocular narrator making light of the world, it anticipates some of Vargas Llosa’s comic novels, such as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; and in its uncanny ability to draw a vast sweep in space and time simply by recounting individual events and stories, there are obvious comparisons with Garbiel Garcia Marquez. It is not difficult to see why Epitaph of a Small Winner is accepted as a classic of Brazilian literature.

(NYT review; the book is available on Amazon).

Jennifer Matumbi, Kintu 

The form of Kintu is familiar to readers of postcolonial fiction of a certain kind: the story of a nation, told through the travails of a single extended family through the generations. In terms of its story, however, Kintu is unique. Anchored around a senseless, violent death on a road in the Ugandan countryside, Kintu spans the pre-colonial kingdom of Buganda, the era of colonialism, Idi Amin’s wars, and Uganda’s transition into the 21st century. There is a sprawling cast of characters – all part of an extended family descended from a half-historical, half-legendary figure called Kintu (“Kintu” is, in fact, a central character in Bugandan creation myth), whose single misdeed many centuries ago brought down a curse that continues to dog the family. Teachers, evangelists, incestuous twins, a military leader, and many others – their lives and paths intersect, separate, entwine, separate again, and finally come together in a haunting denouement at the end of the novel. There is a smattering of magic as well, vaguely reminiscent of The Famished Road, but only vaguely.

In the Introduction to Kintu, Aaron Bady writes that Makumbi “vowed to tell the story of Uganda with colonialism placed in perspective: not to say that the colonial encounter wasn’t important, but that it wasn’t the only thing that was.” Nonetheless, for me, some of the most striking passages from the book have to do with colonialism. For instance:

“After independence, Uganda – a European artifact – was still forming as a country rather than as a kingdom in the mind of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabaka Muteesa II was made president of the new Uganda. Nontehless, most of them felt that “Uganda” should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kabaka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were now Ugandans. Their histories, cultures, and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them. But to the Ganda, the reality of Uganda as opposed to Buganda only sank in when, after independence, Obote overran the kabaka’s lubiri with tanks, exiling Muteesa and banning all kingdoms. The desecreation of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.”

Even more striking is a piece of imagery developed by a teacher, lately returned from the colonial metropolis (a familiar figure in postcolonial literature), in a piece he is writing for the local magazine:

Buganda, unlike the rest of Africa, was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was the plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house… Though the African was too weak to get up, he still said to the European, “I don’t like what you are doing, my friend. Please get out of my house.” But the European replied, “I am only trying to help, brother. You are still too weak and drowsy to look after your house. I will take charge in the meantime. When you’re fully recovered, I promise you will work and run twice as fast as I do… But the African body rejected the European body parts. Africa says that they are incompatible. The surgeons say that Africa discharged itself too soon from hospital – that is why it is hemorrhaging. It needs a lot more continual blood and water pumped up intravenously. The surgeons say, “Nonsense, we did the same to India, see how fast it’s running.”

And perhaps, most effective of all, the rawness of this:

“God became an idea. If there was a God then he was a racist. In anger, Miisi walked away from religion.”

(Africa in Words review; Jennifer Makumbi interview; the book is available on Amazon)

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Filed under Jennifer Matumbi, Machado de Assis, Uganda