Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Caine Shortlist Blogging - La Salle de Depart

Here's the fourth installment in my blogging of the Caine shortlist, along with others in a ZunguZungu-led coterie of bloggers. The story I'm reviewing is Melissa Tandiwe Myambo's "La Salle de Depart" (pdf).

This is the first of the Caine stories which actually seeks to thoroughly understand the characters that it depicts. Fatima is wonderfully drawn, and in beautiful sentences and fantastic imagery that is both tender and unsparing in its honesty. What you get is a real economy in the sense that we are told everything we need to know about the characters to neither excuse nor rebuke them, but to understand them. You can almost see the tension as Fatima seeks the words to ask Ibou about Babacar, you see the resentment and even the inadequacy that goes into Ibou’s rejection. In the salle de depart, Ibou does more than travel back to America; he emphasizes the differences between Fatima and himself. Even as he physically was in Senegal during his visit, he had left them a long time before, and would always feel that degree of remove.

One comes away with a sense of just how different we become when we leave our respective African countries to live elsewhere. Nothing looks the same anymore, and there is often this tug between disillusionment of greener pasture you have moved to that clambers awkwardly alongside this new vision of  where you have left. Sometimes home benefits from the distance, and other times, in many ways, it does not. Home did not benefit from the distance for Ibou, and you get the sense that Ibou flounders as he tries to explain, because to speak more eloquently will be to express how much he neither wants to be home, nor wants to be reminded of home. Myambo also alludes to Ibou’s shame of not being well-to-do in Senegal, compared to Ghada’s wealthier French-educated family. Where she and her mother speak classy French, his family is simpler, especially the sister he used to be so close to when he was younger,

When she reminds him of how her education was sacrificed for his, he does not say anything, mostly because there is nothing to say. It was never anything he had to think about. It was not among the list of annoyances that he thought of when he texted Ghada that he felt “like an ATM machine”. It was just the way things went. There was nothing he could say about that. It was not his fault, after all, that she was bound by her womanhood and sisterhood into such a sense of duty that, even as upset as she was, she would still stay in the airport until his plane had taken off. It was not his fault that he felt no similar sense of duty. They were the ones that had sent him away.

What I love most about this is that, even with the familiarity of this story for a lot of Africans, especially those in the diaspora, Myambo gives us a real story. She takes the time to give us imagery, to make us feel the words stuck in Fatima’s throat, to understand her confusion, to get a sense of Ibou’s relationship with Ghada, to stand there in the airport with Fatima and understand how hard her final words to Ibou must have been to say. She walks the fine line that African writers often walk between managing the weight of testimony and the skill of fiction. She does not for one moment forget she is telling a story, and this story is the better for it.

Read all the Caine Prize shortlisted stories:
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Friday, May 25, 2012

Caine Prize Shortlist Review - S. O. Kenani's "Love on Trial"

Here's the third installment in my blogging of the Caine shortlist, along with others in a ZunguZungu-led coterie of bloggers. The story is S. O.Kenani's Love on Trial (pdf).

This Kenani short story takes on the issue of gay rights in Malawi, but Africa more broadly. There was a real effort on the part on the writer to go after the rationale for the holding back gay rights and the dehumanization of people based solely on their sexuality. This frustration for any progressive-leaning person living in an African country is understandable, but one must wonder how best to tackle it in fiction (hint: not like Kenani chooses to here).

I found the title a bit misleading. I understand where “Love on Trial” comes from, but there really is just one person on trial here: Charles. This is not like that the gay couple arrested in Malawi for attempting to marry; this is a man who people have found out is gay and not has to defend himself in the open (lucky he is a lawyer, huh?). I quibble with this, because I think it is unnecessary in its call to our conscience, but also because I find it strange because there is an actual trial which ends in his being thrown in jail, and it was not thoroughly dealt with. We’re given a TV show spectacle instead.

The sad part is that there was plenty of potential for the story to take a more subtle, more illuminating path. By starting off the story with the drunken Lapani Kachigwe who used his recounting of how he came walked in on Charles and his lover in flagrante to get free alcohol for his friends was, to me, brilliant. It was a subtle way of showing how unthinking Kachigwe was, how little he considered that recounting the story over and again would do to someone’s life, and a nice way of introducing the question of privilege. He could have used the omniscient point of view to put Charles’s actual trial as the center of the question and really spend time teasing out the cultural issues and to fully flesh out the frame of mind of the people who are putting the young man on trial. Kenani could have used his story as a thoughtful rumination of privilege, a consideration of how we apportion humanity in post-colonial societies. Rather, he used it to shake his fists at our collective morality. Hell, he even ended the story with the parable.

I think one of the hardest things for African writers is to balance a deep political consciousness with the discipline to prioritize the writing of a good story. Kenani, with this story, focused too much on former than on the latter. In focusing on the brouhaha gathering around Charles, he offers only a cartoonish version of the townspeople and no real reason why his family, unlike the townspeople, is tolerant of their son’s homosexuality. When we get to the TV show section of the story, the writer almost forgets about setting and the importance of characterization of the people he is depicting. Charles is the gentle, intelligent gay man who is faithful to his boyfriend and wants to be a lawyer, but all we know about the TV show host is that he thinks homosexuality is a sin.

African writers can write about just whatever they please, like any writer anywhere else, but African writers who know of their cultural setting enough to write about must know the length and breadth of the humanity of those (s)he chooses to depict. As complicated as it is, there are plenty of good, intelligent, even morally-upright people across who would blanch at the thought of equal rights for gay citizens. Kenani, however, makes no notice of this albeit-inconvenient truth. While I agree on full human rights for gay citizens in my country, I take exception to the writer's inconspicuous kindness only at characters who agree with him, and I remain unconvinced that the best response to unresolved cultural issues is to resort to the smugness that will not allow us to see the humanity in those we do not agree with.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Caine Prize Shortlist Review - Billy Kahora's "Urban Zoning"

The ever-awesome blogger ZunguZungu has once again arranged a bloggers' review of each Caine Prize story, and once again, I am among the number. Here's a review for Billy Kahora's story "Urban Zoning" (pdf). Better late than never.

This one was a hard nut to crack for me.

Let's start with the plot, shall we? Kandle is a young man who rather prefers a constant state of drunkenness to sobriety. We meet him when he is 72 hours into this particular drunken spell as he walks the tight rope between good and bad zone, keeping his countenance equanimous, his thoughts positive. All this while, he is arranging his face, his thoughts, his mind for his ultimate "performance" the meeting with the board of the bank where he works.

In the course of the story, we learn that Kandle has a grown into a man wary of closeness to people, and possibly averse to commitment, seeing as every relationship we see him in has him abusive his position (with the house help), manipulative (with his employers), or without any sense of attachment at all (all the references to casual sex). We learn that he is a fair-skinned Kenyan man, and there are hints that his family is at least relatively well off. His name is Kandle, which brings to mind "candle", the inevitable burn-out of youth. We even see, at the end of the story, an attempt by Kahora to universalize him, calling his and his friend Ocuotho's laughter "a language in itself, used to climb from a national quiet desperation." In that final sentence of the story, we are to affix Kandle and his story in the fabric of larger Kenyan society (something I personally cannot speak to).

The problem is, I don't see what I'm supposed to do with all these observations. I wonder if there is some larger point to this story that I am missing, because the story is set somewhere I am not familiar with, or perhaps I feel this way because there is not much resolution here. We get to know this very interesting character, but then what? Urban Zoning is almost nothing but a character sketch. This is allowed, of course, in an Open City kind of way, but it is not quite enough for me in this particular case.

I'll give it to Kahora, though; he writes a hell of a story. My only grouse with the writing is how, towards the end of the story, the author "zoomed out" from Kandle's point of view, but even with that, you can't but love Kahora's observant eye, the darkness of the story, and the fantastic prose. There is a real rhythm, real music, to his sentences. I especially like the vividness of this section:

 Starting off toward Harambee Avenue, Kandle wobbled suddenly, halting the crazy laughter in his chest. Looking around, he felt the standard paranoia of the Zone start to come on. Walking in downtown Nairobi at rush hour was an art even when sober. Drunk, it was like playing rugby in a moving bus on a murram country road. Kandle forced himself back into the Good Zone by going back to Lenana School in his mind. Best of all, he went back to rugby-memory land, to the Mother of All Rugby Fields, Stirlings, the field where he had played with an abandoned joy. He had been the fastest player on the pitch, a hundred meters in twelve seconds easy, ducking and weaving, avoiding the clueless masses, the thumbless hoi polloi, and going for the girl watching from the sidelines. In his mind’s eye the girl was always the same: the Limara advert girl. Thin and slender. Dark because he was light, slightly taller than him. The field was next to the school’s dairy farm, so there were dung-beetle helicopters in the air to avoid and mines of cow-dung to evade.

I love a well-written story. This one just isn't for me.

Read all the Caine Prize shortlisted stories:

Fellow bloggers' reviews of this story:

Black Balloon
Stephen Derwent Partington
The Reading Life
Backslash Scott
City of Lions
Practically Marzipan
Cashed In
The Mumpsimus

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Caine Prize Shortlist Review - "Bombay's Republic" by Rotimi Babajide

It's the Caine Prize Blogathon once again! 

The ever-awesome blogger ZunguZungu has once again arranged a bloggers' review of each Caine Prize story. Check out his introductory post here. It's great to be a part of this for the second year in a row, and I'm hoping that this batch of story is an improvement upon last year's because... well.... yeah.

OK, here comes the first of the reviews. It's for Rotimi Babatunde's Bombay's Republic (pdf). Co-bloggers' reviews at the bottom of the page.

First of all, I like how the story was written. In addition to some gorgeous phrasing from Babatunde, the third-person narrative and the "clash of cultures humor" reminded me of the film "The Gods Must Be Crazy", especially the scenes where the natives thought the black soldiers had tails, or the Japanese thinking that blacks must be chopped to bits when killed, else they resurrect like zombies. The point of view also provided enough distance from the actual story  -- the war, the racism, the absurdity,  the pathetic circumstances for the black soldiers -- for some parts of the story to actually be funny.

I found Bombay's character very well-drawn. He was a simple man to begin with, content with the life of a soldier. I like how Bombay did not return to Nigeria and take up the role of freedom fighter for against the scourge of imperialism. All he seemed to want to do was return to his home country and live a quiet life. For a story that deals with racism and imperialism (The Oncoming Hope's review will deal with this more), it made sense to not have the lead character initially be exceptional. Too often in African literature, writers foist upon their characters the burden of their history. Babatunde's approach to this story -- from the narrator's distance to the humor and the characterization -- is a shrugging off of any attempt to have this story be much more than a piece of fiction. One could not but smile at District Officer's quandary over whether or not to punish Bombay over refusing to pay taxes, particularly on how Bombay may mount a successful attack against whatever soldiers would be sent to take him in. He had forced his humanity upon DO, made the British see him as a force to be reckoned with.

Everything Bombay's time at war showed him pointed to his humanity and the humanity of the British he was with. It made sense that he would resist paying taxes, or even use Bombay's Republic as a way of scaring off the British like he used his bellowing at the enemies during the war to scare them into retreat. I was not expecting at all for him to become quite so self-important as to draw up a constitution and call himself President. This new egomania seemed out of character, and it is indeed possible that he went mad. What makes Bombay's madness uncertain, though, is that you see no sign of it when he was in the jungle, and the narrator says nothing about any particular episode that haunts him.   

Further, I know the last bit about his birth country being a foreign one was meant to be funny, but I never got the sense that Bombay held any resentment towards Nigeria for "allowing" itself to be controlled by the British. After all, he did not even seem to really mind being a part of a forgotten platoon in the army. We know later -- and expect even while it was happening -- that also "forgotten" was to be the familiarity between the white and black soldiers, and whatever it is that black soldiers like Bombay had learned was possible.

In his own twisted way -- even as he channeled his inner Yaya Jammeh and the titles he gave himself became more and more grand --  Bombay's ambition never did grow. He learned so much about what was possible behind the thick curtain of imperialism and got a glimpse of what it was like to be seen as fully human by the white men that he soldiered alongside, but these were obviously never lessons he knew what to do with. Not that one could fault Bombay for that; what does one do with knowing that colonialist is as human as you are, when the state structures in your home country support the idea that he is not? if you're not of the temperament to agitate with the independence activists, what else could you do?

So when he did found his own republic, it was to rule himself, to make laws governing his one-man republic, and to get independence for no one else but himself. It may be just as well that Bombay never did get any more citizens (the jury is out on whether more citizens would have changed his behavior). For him, this independence was as good as it got, and there was no one to question him as he bestowed himself with titles that he had done nothing to attain. It was also just as well that Bombay was not a rich "country", and perhaps this failure of the lead character's ambition is Babatunde's point: you must check all colonialists at the door, even the ones that look like you.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why You Should Keep An Eye on the Northern Nigeria

Yes, our eyes are trained on the soap opera of the fuel subsidy protests and the re-invigoration of Nigerian civil society, but we should all be very worried about the North. Here’s why.

1 – Before fuel subsidy protests, we were facing an emboldened Boko Haram striking seemingly at will at a mosque around New Years’ Day and a church on Christmas day (you can read on this here), and a Nigerian government that has shown that it has no answer to their brutality. Arrests were made on the Christmas bombings, but thanks to focus on the fuel subsidy issue, many Nigerians did not notice that persecution and investigation of the Christmas Day attacks have stalled.

The worst thing that can happen to the situation in the north is for Nigerian media to look away in favor of another story. With the fuel subsidy taking over media coverage and the presidency’s continued ineffectiveness in security issues, the situation in the north will continue to worsen.

2 – The State of Emergency has done absolutely nothing to improve the situation of the northern states most impacted by Boko Haram attacks. There have consistently been attacks since the closing of borders and  heightened surveillance in the state, and the Boko Haram has been so bold as to release a video justifying their attacks on their most recent killings of Christians (perhaps they will release another justifying their killings on Muslims). With their ultimatum for southerners to leave the north, the islamist sect has declared itself owner of the north and determiner of who stays and who does not while the government looks on impotently. Following the group’s ultimatum for Christians to leave the north, they since killed 12 in Adamawa on the 7th of January, 8 in Yobe, and that's just to name a few of the atrocities carried out by Boko Haram in January.

3 – If the situation worsens we will start to see reprisal killings of a higher and higher scale. During the fuel subsidy protests in Benin, there has been the burning of a mosque and citizens have reported killings of Hausas in the Sabo area of Benin on twitter. Following the bombing of an Islamic school in Sapele, Delta State, Many southern regional groups like the Igbo Massob and the Yoruba Oodua People's Congress, and the south-south Niger-Delta Youth for Radical Change have called for northerners to leave the south-east. Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) vow to defend Nigerian Christians from Boko Haram (without elaborating on how) certainly does not help with the petering away of trust that Nigerian society, as any other forward-moving society, is built on. In addition to worsening economic climes and intra-national security, the last thing Nigeria needs is wide-spread ethnic tension and reprisal killings.

It is not clear that there is anyone that GEJ even must listen to on the issue of fuel subsidy. He will get no pressure from his political party; Nigerians vote personalities, not parties, into power for gubernatorial or presidential elections, so PDP could still win another election regardless of how unpopular Jonathan becomes in his final term as president. It makes sense, then, that GEJ would rather the Nigerian populace focus on the fuel subsidy protests than on the rapidly deteriorating security situation: one problem he has the power to control, and the other he so patently does not.

The situation cannot stay a stalemate for long; the senate president has been asked by his members to tell the president to revert the pump price to N65.00, but there is as yet no official word from the President. With the protests and strike entering its fourth day, one wonders how long the protesters can conceivably hold on, how long the labour can hold its ground and maintain support, and how much pain the presidency is willing to allow be inflicted upon the citizenry.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Holding Up The Mirror to Ineptitude

On my Twitter feed, I’ve been tracking and commenting on the fuel subsidy issue. But in the haze of the nation’s collective rage on the fuel subsidy removal, and in the euphoria of being virtually surrounded by a heightened sense of political awareness on the part of Nigerians on a level made even more intense thanks to social media, it is entirely possible that we may be allowing ourselves to be distracted by other pressing issues at hand.

Boko Haram has been responsible for two killing sprees in as many days. In Gombe, Gombe State, the Islamic sect sent a gunman to go to a Deeper Life church service and kill 6 and injure 10. In the other, the sect claimed responsibility for the killing of 20 in a church in Mubi, Adamawa State. These attacks, they claim, were in response to the government’s admittedly-laughable State of Emergency in both states.

And those are only in the past two days. On the 3rd of January, in Dutse, some suspected Boko Haram members attacked Birniwa Divisional Police Headquarters in Jigawa State, killing a teenage girl and a police officer before setting fire to the building. In a ridiculing of the State of Emergency put in place by President Goodluck Jonathan, explosions rocked both Maiduguri, the sect’s stronghold in Borno State, and Damaturu, Yobe State, late on Wednesday, the 4th.

This Vanguard piece also has a great timeline of Boko Haram’s attacks on Nigerians. In the face of government’s ineptitude in dealing with them, the sect has even grown so bold as to issue ultimatums to Christians to leave the North, lest they be killed.

It makes sense that the government would rather face a group of protesters it does not believe will hold firm to its purported ideals than its ineptitude in the mirror. And so we must do exactly that: stand firm. And we must hold that mirror up high.

It is good for us to train our eyes on issues like the fuel subsidy removal that directly affect us, but it is also very important that we do not let the rug be quietly swept from under us in other areas. Let us not be inured to the deaths of those that have suffered at the hands of a ruthless band of crazed men. Let us not forget to hold accountable the government that has allowed them such boldness as to believe that our lives are worth more when we lie blown to bits, our blood on our walls, our eyes devoid of life.

The Beginning of the End of a Bad Marriage?

I published this piece on the fuel subsidy protests in NigeriansTalk.org.

The history of Nigeria has for too long been like a bad Nollywood movie. Nigeria is that battered housewife who has taken her beatings quietly, allowed her earnings to be squandered by her wasteful, alcoholic, extravagant, unworthy husband.

Even when we choose our leaders, it seems we choose to stay on our most destructive trend. Our political leaders and our religious leaders often look the same. We flock to pastors who call our children witches, imams who sleep with our daughters, empty suits who take our tithes to buy exotic cars and gallivant around the world, then return to us to preach humility and simplicity. These beatings, these abuses, these insults to our intelligence, we have taken silently.

For decades, nothing has happened. But 2011 has taught us, from Egypt to Tunisia, right down to the most intractable situation in Libya, that in a moment, decades can happen.

You can read the rest here.