Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Caution: Highly Quotable -- Ben Okri

Ben Okri is as eloquent as ever when he talks about his work on the latest edition of CNN's African Voices.

On Africa:
When I see Africa, I see a medley of richness and possibility, a confusion of past and present, a dance of too many voices, cries of suffering and injustice, a dominant melody of tyranny. I see many different periods in one. The strange thing about Africa is how past, present and future come together in a kind of rough jazz, if you like.

In the midst of so much blood and wars and tribal divisions and confusion and famines and all of that -- that is what I see. It's a rich, complex, confusing music in which a new melody, a new note, is slowly emerging, slowly sounding through.

On his work:
My job in many of my books is to show the impact of perception on reality, why we have the politics we have, the failures we have in society, it all comes down to consciousness, to what we see, to what we consider to be real. And that's the place to do the work in transforming and changing.

On reality:
The longer I live, the longer I look, the more I see that things are strongly connected. I often hear what many consider to be odd synchronicities. someone the other day said to me that they had a dream of someone that they hadn't seen for fifteen years. Then they turned a corner that day and there that person was. What do you make of that? Do you just say, "oh, it's just pure coincidence"? Then I say to them that coincidence is part of reality. You can't chop it up and say that's not part of reality". These things in the midst of life that things are stranger than they appear to be, they're part of reality, we have to let them in and acknowledge them.

On whether he's opening the window for us to his worldview:
Yes, but it's a window that you look into and what you see are aspects of yourself, if I'm any good. The writing, the best writing, is not about the writer. The best writing is about us, about the reader.

Reading is an act of civilization; it's one of the greatest acts of civilization because it takes the free raw material of the mind and builds castles of possibilities. And in the building of those castles of possibilities it frees the creative matrix of men and women. When you can imagine you begin to create and when you begin to create you realize that you can create a world that you prefer to live in, rather than a world that you're suffering in.

Oh, for the gift of being able to drop such gems in regular conversation! Seriously, I wonder if people like this practice in the mirror, measure their words for lyricism and have them scribbled at the ready on notecards. I've joked about this ever since I saw the youtube video of Drake dropping a freestyle on a radio station by reading lyrics off his Blackberry.

Okri really captured the essence of the thing when he talked about Africa, but I find what he says about writing to be so true. The best stuff I read always makes me think of myself and my own reaction to what I am reading. You're not supposed leave a great piece of work with the same thoughts you entered it with.

Check out an edited version of the interview on CNN's page here; there's also video of the interview. Needless to say, I'll be checking out his new book A Time for New Dreams as soon as I can get to it.

Photo credit: PoetryInternational.org

Friday, June 24, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week IV

In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I am joining a coterie of awesome bloggers in reading and reviewing entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year. You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. This week's story is Botswanan writer Lauri Kubutsile's In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata. Here is my post on the first, second, and third stories.

I’ll begin by saying that I really enjoyed reading this. It is great to see a fun, lively story from the African continent that is not terribly profound. The story was written to make you laugh, and it does. The story is written with a cock of the eyebrow in the reader’s direction, and I love that.

That is not to say that there are not major holes in the story for me. I really want to know how these men could have wives cheat on them so brazenly and do nothing but shrug. I know that the men felt threatened by McPhineas Lata, but it is not clear to me why the men did not react with anger, but with this need to one-up the man, or to please him better. I wanted something, anything, to show that these women were in a position of control enough that if they could cheat on their husbands they could manipulate them enough to feel threatened by this other man’s ability to please them.

On the other hand, I really appreciated how sexuality was not burdened by guilt or shame, nor was it studied or typed into datasets for analysis on population growth data and the like. Like everywhere in the world, sex just is, and I like how it is allowed here to just be. Sex does not feature much in African literature, and it is such a change to see it talked about and lamented over, all in such a humorous manner.

I have a gripe with the story's preoccupation with, well, itself. I’d have liked for the writer to zoom out a bit and show us some imagery, some backstory into how McPhineas Lata became the ladies’ man, or even how these men were beaten into complacency with this man going after their wives. The writer probably meant for the story to stay a funny piece, and probably feared sapping from the comedy with too much background, but I don’t think this need be the case. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth -- and On Beauty to a lesser extent -– was excellent for using background to make the story even more comical, and to really tease out what makes the scene so hilarious.

In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata is very different from all the other shortlisted stories in that it is the least topical. It is the one most about people and less about any profound issue. We definitely need good fiction on profound takes on the human experience in African countries and how they're shaped by socio-political happenings, but it is nice that stories like this can get the attention of international prize juries.

Check out ZunguZungu for updates on what other bloggers had to say about the story as they come.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hey, Mr. VJ.....

I haven't put up a jam session in awhile, so here's some songs from South Africa I love right now.

I've loved a lot of what I've heard coming out of South Africa's house scene, but DJ Oskido and Black Coffee really stand out. This particular Black Coffee song is a bit old, but I'm partial to Zakes Bantwini and I just love the feel of this, so laid-back. I liked Oskido's older song Jezebel, but this one is even better. I've said this before, but I really love how South African music takes its influences from outside hip-hop; Nigeria would do well to learn that. As we can see from Siji's Ijo, we can make some pretty good house-inspired music, too, if we tried.

Also, this rapper Khuli Chana is really cool. I prefer AKA as a rapper -- check out his song Victory Lap if you haven't heard it, because it's awesome -- but this is pretty sick as well.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week III

In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I am joining a coterie of awesome bloggers in reading and reviewing entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year. You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. This week's story is South African Tim Keegan's "What Molly Knew". Here is my post on the first story and the second.

This is another story that slow-drips on detail - you don't know immediately that Tommie is "more black than white" and that he's an ANC member. You don't get a full picture of dead Sarah Nobrega and why she left until pretty much the end of the story. While Molly pretty much tells you early on that she's with Rollo because, well, where else is she to go, nothing in the beginning prepares you for what happens in the end. I wish the story was more vivid, that the imagery was "painted" as opposed to having the surroundings reeled off like lists, but this seems to be Keegan's style: you're told only what you need to know at this moment. You will know more when the time is right, and it works.

I like the characterization of this very much. The voices are very distinct, and Molly is very well-drawn. You know, right from the onset, her fears of being alone and her regrets, the single-mindedness with which she carries on her tasks about the house, and even feel some pity when watching her maneuver the minefield that is living Rollo. And we are told everything we need to know about Rollo, except that one important thing -- I'd hate to spoil it for whoever hasn't read the piece yet -- but you can almost hear the gruffness of his tone, and the reason for the self-righteousness with which he talks about Sarah in the beginning becomes all to clear at the end of the story.

For outsiders to South Africa's post-apartheid society like me, it is nice to have the scene at the hairdressers where one gets some insight into what the big deal was about Tommie being black and an ANC person. He is colored, but he's picked a side, and the parallel is made quite clear that Tommie bringing his black-power ANC life into the neighborhood is not unlike Tommie bringing his, well, blackness into Sarah’s family. I like how the race issue is layered with resentment for his apparent role in Molly losing her daughter (we think this until the end of the story) and Rollo not getting along with Sarah. Race here reminds me of what we are seeing in parts of the U.S. polity in the Obama era: while not the sole cause for animus, race acts as a sort of amplifier of difference that further sours discourse and deepens resentment. In the case of this story, race makes more stark the differences between the kind of the life she led in her marriage, and the life she left behind with her mother.

It is very difficult to not think of J.M. Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning Disgrace when you read this story, and compare the way race is handled in both. Both paint grim pictures on race relations in South Africa, and the tension that follows when black and white "worlds" collide. The collision in this story, at the funeral service at the church hall with Tommie's black ANC friends, is much less violent than the rape in Disgrace, but still hostile and the discomfort of the two whites, Rollo and Molly, was very telling.

Below is the major quote of the story, and it comes early on:

He knows that all citizens are equal in the new South Africa, but he can’t help but feel some people’s pain more than others’. That’s just the way he is, and the newspapers and television people seem to think the same way, to judge by the posse of reporters and cameras outside Sarah Nobrega’s flat in Goodwood when he left.

There is a certain, for lack of a better word, selfishness in this quote that permeates the entire story. Molly is more concerned about her sense of normalcy than putting her daughter’s killer to justice. Rollo is more concerned about himself than anyone else and, as is hinted, even killed Molly’s daughter out of this selfishness. Sarah didn’t much care about how Tommie would received in her family; she went ahead and married him anyway. It is not for nothing that the only one who made a move that would affect the lives of everyone else in the most positive way was shot dead. It’s an insightful, quietly damning portrait of the people depicted in the story, and perhaps of South Africa's new society at large.

Check out ZunguZungu for updates on what other bloggers had to say about the story as they come.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mainstreaming Hausa

I had a conversation earlier today with a few friends about Hausa representation in Dare Art-Alade's new video for "Ba Ni Kidi."

My friend took issue with Dare's "weird" Hausa (the title is grammatically incorrect, he thinks), but I'm more concerned about the circus, the monkey, the magic... it just felt a bit too Aladdin's Genie for me. It is almost like the singer forgot the song was in Hausa, and decided to go Arabian Nights route instead.

I only mean to make an observation -- and not pick on Dare Art-Alade -- when I say that this video has me thinking about Hausa people and their place in Nigeria's mainstream culture. The only thing even remotely Hausa about me is my name, but it's worth lending a thought to the representation of the Hausa -- or lack thereof -- in Nigerian pop culture. And no, I don't mean somebody saying "Nagode Jesu" in church songs, or Style Plus singing a hook to a song in the language.

In addition to being, according to some observers, the least likely to be educated in Nigeria, Hausas have been left behind in Nigeria's popular culture. The artist Zaaki never did get other Hausas to come to the fore in Nigerian music. I am not aware of any major Hausa actresses in Nigerian films who identifies with being Hausa the way Funke Akindele and Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde do with being Yoruba, or Genevieve Nnaji, Patience Ozorkwor (sorry if I'm butchering it), Stephanie Okereke and Rita Dominic are so obviously Igbo. Hausa films are much younger an industry than Yoruba and Igbo ones, but I wonder about their distribution in Lagos; if they only get around in Kano and Kaduna, it will only strengthen Hausa's isolation from Nigeria's mainstream. I am Yoruba, and the people and culture are so thoroughly a part of pop culture that one cannot but notice Hausas' absence when one compares. Couple this with the power Hausa elites have in Nigeria's polity, you get a lot of room for resentment and misrepresentation aided by silence of the group in the mainstream.

And then there's this video.

What makes the video so repellent to me is the near voicelessness of the people whose language and image is used in this song. I know Dare probably just means to put together a fun, interesting music video, but I know that if someone put together a not-so-flattering/ even slightly mocking video on Yorubas, there'd be more of a reaction across followers of Nigerian music. I wonder what a Hausa person would think seeing this, and how they will feel about their inability to affect the way they are being depicted in the popular culture of their own country.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week II

This is round two of the one in which I join a gang of awesome bloggers in reading and blogging on the entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year, in an initiative hosted by Aaron Brady (ZunguZungu). You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. This week's story is Beatrice Lamwaka's "Butterfly Dreams." My post on the first story is here.

There was a nice minimalism to Butterfly Dreams that I liked. As in Hitting Budapest one sees the desire to withhold, to not say things outright. We're not told from the outset, for example, that they live in a refugee camp. We're not told, though we can gather, that, though they were probably not rich, they were definitely far from poor before "it" happened.

The point of view Lamwaka chose for the story is also worth praising. Butterfly Dreams is told by someone in the middle of the story who remains unnamed -- a family member, perhaps -- and this gives the appropriate mix of sadness towards Lamunu, a touch of defiance (like when the person was talking about the father and the food they now eat), quietly adamant denial, and mournfulness that permeates the entire story.

Unlike Hitting Budapest, though, I can see why this was written. There would be no story without the return of Lamunu, and she brings the people to which she returns into confront their own violent history. It is a history that no one will want to live through again, and one wonders why they are so welcoming of Lamunu, why they sought her out, listening for her name on the radio every day for five years. Yes, she is family, but no one should be forced to want something simply because it is theirs.

The story’s background is grim, but not without some subtle attempts at hope. The burying of the tipu served as foreshadowing of a new life for the family, a new future. The dream of the return of Lamunu is a butterfly dream. And Lamunu is the butterfly about the house that they watch in somber awe. Calling the story Butterfly Dreams, though, calls to question what the writer is trying to say. Are the characters mad for thinking that Lamunu’s return is necessarily the salvo they think it is? Can a figure of a horrible, violent past coexist in the house of a nation of people who survived its past? We end with Lamunu attempting to live a normal life, go to school like a girl her age, albeit with other children scarred from the same experience that she has had. But it’s an attempt at normalcy nonetheless. It will have to do.

You could probably tell that I quite liked the story, but I am not unaware of sensitivity towards stories of its kind. I’m generally in the camp that says we capped on the need of child soldier stories around the time when Ahmadou Kourouma wrote Allah N’est Pas Oblige, not because these stories are untrue and I don't trust a Western audience to read these stories and nothing else (OK, it's part of it). And even as I can discern clearly what the writer is trying to say about this family and, much broader, about the situation in the country, I'm actually quite ready to forgive that for the subtlety with which I think the story was told. There were no headless bodies on the streets, no raped girls and drugged up children with uzis, no gratuitous appeals for pity. Most of the all, there was a story. Perhaps I'm setting the bar a bit low, but I appreciate all these things.

It does bear repeating that we need more stories of contemporary, heavily-urbanized, not-a-giraffe-in-sight Africa. It's probably fair to say that African countries' citizens are not the same people as they were 50, 25, even 10 years ago. We deserve a literature that reflects our dynamism. While recognizing this, I don’t have a political point to make on the story, because whatever one may think, the story has a point, it has a reason that it was written, and it was indeed written very well. I am consciously staying away from the counterargument that effectively puts down literature like this, because I cannot deny its validity. Hell, I even agree to it myself. I will, however, put this forward: stories like this need being told, and I think this is actually a good way to do it.

Check out ZunguZungu for reviews by the rest of the bloggers.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

In Which I Aspire to Questionable Heights of Shameless Self-Promotion

I debated putting this up here, but I figure I may as well.

An essay of mine on moving back to Nigeria got published in the awesome blog-magazine called This Recording. Here's a bit of it:
Back in Lagos now, I have an older pair of eyes. Nigeria is no longer a place of childhood imagination and birthday parties. Though I do not see this as where I came of age, the fact that it is my home has become more true than at any other time in my life.

It is always understood when you leave Nigeria as a Nigerian that you will return at some point. There is family, after all, probably weddings or, worse still, funerals. And it's not like every minute you are away you aren't wondering what new club has opened, what new slang people are using, what new artist is making waves. Diaspora Nigerians fresh from weeks of partying in Lagos return to regale you with stories of change and mobile phones, of parties that could make Fitzgerald dizzy with jetsetters and entrepreneurs. Nigeria is an escalator of a country, forever moving upwards towards another level that is shinier, more luxurious than the one we left behind. We are a people in transit, living our lives as though forever stuck in the London-to-Lagos terminal in Heathrow. We always seem to be going somewhere, always seem to be moving.

Read it all here. It was also featured in Longform.org, which is every shade of awesome.

There's really no reason why there's the music video of Siji's awesome song "Ijo" below. Almost no reason - Black Looks recommended it to me a long while ago, and I fell hard for the song. Consider this a good use at my Machiavellian powers.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week I

In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I'm joining a gang of awesome bloggers in reading and blogging on the entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year. You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. There's five stories on the shortlist, and a review will be going up every Friday. This is the first one.

The first story the group will be reviewing is “Hitting Budapest”, a story by Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo. What I liked most about the story is the dialogue between the characters, how real it was. I liked the hard-edged innocence of aspiring to be better thieves coupled with not seeing there is something really wrong when a girl is impregnated by her grandfather, scarcely even knowing where babies even come from. I liked how it's not exactly drilled into you that these kids are not the wealthiest. The first thing you learn about them is not their poverty, but that they are kids. And truly, that's all you need to know.

What I didn't like, however, was how I was not sure why there was any need for this story at all. One bothers to write a story, I believe, to point out a moment where things change, either the moments leading up to the change, or the fall-out of the change itself. Basically, I think that a piece of fiction is best when it chronicles a momentous time in a character's life, and the fall-out from such an occasion. Stories can stop and start a narrative so we can zoom in and out like a camera at details and skip backwards and forwards in time, showing to the point of stark nudity particular instances in a character's life in a way that film or any other medium may not be able to. I can't say that this story really does that here.

Perhaps the point she was getting at was that they got to see themselves through the eyes of this random woman in this really upscale neighborhood, but that particular thread wasn't dragged through the story. We get no sense of how the kids were affected by this meeting, save for feeling indignant at her taking a picture of when without so much as offering them food. Maybe the coupling of meeting someone they thought as strange and insensitive with the confronting of a suicide was meant to hint the reader at something about their not knowing how miserable their circumstances are. But they do. They know enough about their situation to want to escape it. Their entire day in the story, they talked about escaping, to Budapest, to America, to South Africa. At the end of the story, I don't know why Bulawayo chose this particular time in the characters' lives, or get any sense how this particular trip to Budapest warranted telling. In sum, I don't know why she wrote the story at all. I don't always think stories ought to have some sort of moral lesson or even a “point” as such; I just like knowing, after I read a story, why it was written in the first place.

In spite of what I've said, and the ending (I found it a bit rushed), I liked reading the story, and I probably will check out more of the writer's work. One of the most gratifying things about this juncture in African literature is how urban some of the stories are, how current, and how younger folks are willing to talk about social issues without moralizing. I'm sure I've said this in this blog before, but I really hate how almost necessary it is as an artist in an African country to feel the need to be topical and have something to say about whatever burning issue there is in our polity. We can't always write about HIV/Aids or poverty, after all, and even if we do, we can't, for the sake of creating art, forget that reality is all about telling stories about people and the very flawed, ver fascinating lives they lead. Even when writers talk about poor people, the best art puts it at the forefront of our minds that we are dealing first and foremost with people, celebrates that humanity before it decries the situation that it lives in, and quietly when it does so. This story does that, as does so many stories people are coming with these days, and that should be applauded.

To see how the other bloggers liked (or not) this story, check ZunguZungu for updates with more blog reactions.