Thursday, November 14, 2013

bell hooks and MHP on Feminism and Being Black in America

I absolutely loved this insightful and brilliant public conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry over at the New School in NY.

If you don't know who bell hooks is, do fix that. She's a feminist and intellectual who has written extensively on gender, politics and identity. MHP is kinda awesome as well. I'm a big fan of her show on MSNBC and fully intend to read her latest book. 

bell hooks was brilliant and insightful as always, but MHP was awesome. A friend and I talked about this event while I was tweeting it, and he's right that the atmosphere demanded intellectual honesty and rigor. 

I tweeted while I watched this, so check out the Storify of what I had to say (some tweets are missing, though). I bet you'll have a lot to say, too.

Monday, October 21, 2013

An Appreciation of Fela Kuti and Some Thoughts on Nigeria

I don't use this space nearly as much as I should, but I did get some writing done recently. Here's me in the Mail and Guardian blog Voices of Africa on Fela Kuti: 

Felabration, the annual two-day festival celebrating the now-late Fela Kuti, was held in Lagos this week at a time when Nigeria is in the most peculiar of situations. The country is in bad shape, to be sure, but its ruins are not the same in every home. Some of us have not had our entire worlds yanked from beneath our feet. Some among us have children who do not know a time when our walls saw a coat of paint. Others merely see the worst of pervasive lack on the streets while riding in air-conditioned cars. Our Africa is indeed rising, but with a tide that has lifted some boats and sunk many others. That so many of us are buoyed while most are sinking can distort our urgency, but it is at this time that Nigerians must find the eyes to see the bleeding body that has been dropped at our front door.

I should make a slight amendment to that part, though. Felabrations is a week-long, not a two-day, festival. Everything else, I stand by.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Section 29 and the Personhood of the Nigerian Womanhood

Nigerian lawmakers have lobbed a curveball, and the citizens have responded by swinging in anger. Sen. Yerima, in a coup at the Senate during a routine vote on renunciation of citizenship, managed to argue successfully to maintain subsection 4(b) to our constitution (Do forgive the relative absence of links and wording of the constitution on this piece; I’m writing from an offline laptop and uploading the post on Blogger through my phone). Currently, Section 29 allows Nigerian citizens 18 and over to forsake their citizenship. At Sen. Yerima’s insistence, subsection to Section 29, 4(b) has been left in, stipulating that any woman married is to be deemed of an adult, and thus of age, using the justification that putting so high an age of adulthood is against Islam.

This, as you can imagine, is problematic for many reasons. My first thought was: how can one man hold the Senate to ransom and force a repeat vote, even with a constitution? His insistence on this provision in the constitution did not pass on the first round of votes, but did on the second. Mercifully, Nigerians have kicked themselves into gear; organizing petition drives and open letters and press statements, mobilizing to find ways to take the online passion offline, and reaching out to more and more people. I am encouraged by the attention that we have managed to sustain over the last few days, but I fear a missed opportunity to address the more pertinent issue of Nigerian women’s citizenship rights.

From the very beginning, politically-aware Nigerians on social media used the easiest, more emotional topic to rally around, with a ready-made hashtag that has been around for a while -- #ChildNotBride. I don’t think the discussion on child marriages was unnecessary, mind you; we all know Sen. Yerima’s antecedents as one not opposed to marrying minors and it is correct to point out that one of the implications of such a provision as Section 29, sub-section 4(b), passing muster is that the window within which one could persecute a man for marrying a young girl-child is only open in betrothal, after which she will be, according to the constitution, legally an adult. But if we are to properly focus this discussion, we will do well to take this as an opportunity to address the personhood of the Nigerian woman.

There are entirely too ways in which the Nigerian constitution shuts women out. The current iteration of the constitution does not allow women to pass on citizenship rights to foreign spouses. Even the federal character argument that seeks to balance ethnic diversity in political office does not extend this logic to gender balance. All this, and never mind there being no constitutional protections for women against prejudice and violence. Women are not alone in being without constitutional protections, though; youth and persons with disability are not either. There is no clearer indication that Nigeria sees itself politically as a collection of different ethnicities, and not a nation of men and women. We are then looking for our constitution, a document that does not recognize the individual as a political entity, for our protection. IF this is to be feasible at all, we would need to make the argument more broadly seeking the protection of personhood as a general matter. 

The Nigerian constitutional review process has not been as well covered as that of recent constitutional review efforts by our counterparts in Kenya and Ghana, so a lot of groundwork needs to be done in order to ensure that folk are aware and on message. Civil society groups focusing on gender wrote memorandum after memorandum on how best to make for a more woman-friendly constitution, very much in the shadows of larger issues such as state police and local government autonomy. One of the main problems observable with mounting a social media awareness campaign is just how easily the message can veer off in a direction that you don’t want it to take. We do not have a Melissa Harris-Perry on TV every Saturday morning to help us guide multi-media conversation in traditional media. We do not have a press corps that is always dogged in its work to champion the cause of the most vulnerable of Nigerians. Indeed, most of our media-houses would rather tell the stories of political soap operas in Rivers State than hard-hitting, insightful reportage on issues affecting vulnerable populations. What we have are strong opinions from an impatient people that are understandably cynical about their ability to change anything. Watching conversation on Section 29 has been instructive about how we can better channel our collective energy and the importance of finding ways to drive conversation in a manner that carries us all along. 

Given the context, then, Section 29 of the constitution to be amended with the offending subsection only adds further insult to injury on the question of Nigerian women’s citizenship. Generally, if a law pertains to only one slice of your population, a government’s job of ensuring an equitable society within which its citizens can thrive must be called to question. This troubling notion of “full adult” (as opposed to “half-adult”?) holds so many implications, most egregious of which is that a woman can be “half an adult” for the sake of the man that intends to use her. Aside from being at odds with Child Rights Act which has the age of consent for a child at 18, subsection 4(a) does not make clear what rights these half-adults have rights to. They cannot enter contractual agreements without parental consent, legally vote, or legally obtain a drivers’ license. These “half adults” are, in effect, not adults at all. If a half-adult enters a marriage, can she even dissolve it on her own, given that she does not have contractual consent? What is this half-adult citizen’s right, then? Who determines that? And where does this slippery slope lead to? These are the questions that our government must answer in this constitutional review process. 

I love that Nigerians are taking the activism offline at organizing; frankly, we need the practice for the greater battles ahead in the 2015 elections. I’m just concerned that we have allowed the question posed by the Senate’s actions (however reluctant) on Section 29 to be framed by something not directly linked to the topic at hand. If we’re going to win battles on issues that matter, we need to focus, ask for concrete, achievable things, and orient our message the right way. Taking on a topic that ever so slightly enters the realm of religion at the height of Ramadan in a politically and religiously polarized environment is not a good idea. But the important thing is this: we are right, and this battle can be won.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Blogging the Caine Prize - Pede Hollist "Foreign Aid" and the Diaspora Conversation

I am blogging The Caine Prize Shortlist with a coterie of bloggers. Check out the blog round-up for reactions to the stories on the shortlist over at ZunguZungu's. This week's review is of Pede Hollist's "Foreign Aid" (pdf).

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. So here’s the story of Logan, a man who makes good in America, goes home with a head full of ideas as to how life is supposed to be, and wants to dictate to those he’s left behind in Sierra Leone what kind of life they should live. The title “Foreign Aid” is interesting, because it recognizes Logan’s interventions as from an outside source, as foreign as the Westerner with full of good intentions and soft-spoken superiority. The messages in this story, warning of the dangers in de-contextualizing a nation’s problems and playing know-all, are clear. Maybe even too clear.

As far as the writing goes, this story was hard for me to muscle through. For what this story was trying to do, I think it is fair to say that it was entirely too long. There were entire scenes that could have been cut out – like the hedging at the beginning to give Balogun aka Logan a back-story that does not do much to explain the man that we see in Sierra Leone, or that entirely too long scene with the suitcases and the ferry. rather, I would have liked, for example, to know more about what gave Logan, who had lived in Sierra Leone until his twenties, the level of remove from where he grew up that what he met at home so surprised him. How different was the Salone he knew as a young man and the Salone he’d probably heard or read about in his years in America from the Salone he met upon his return? Did he have no friends of African descent in the U.S.? I simply do not buy that he came home a tabula rasa and needed to re-learn his environment. Also, those conversations between Logan and the many uncles were so obviously playing into a point the author was trying to make that I wish he had just written us an essay and gotten it over with.

The trouble is that I actually completely understand the world the writer is depicting here. Aunties and uncles abroad always joke about how they avoid coming home because the expectation is always that they spray around the money that they’ve acquired from the Land of Milk and Honey. I know how irritated I get when I meet Nigerians who live outside the country that act as though they have all the solutions for Nigeria’s progress, because those of us who currently live in the country obviously couldn’t trace our wrists from our elbows. Lots of people who have spent time away truly no longer understand how a nation could make it so difficult for people to survive, never mind thrive. But I am not every reader, and the way that each character is influenced by their time abroad also differs. It does take a lot of effort and care, but there is indeed a way to tell well-observed, beautifully written stories of this world that does everything that a good story must do.

The tradition of writing set in Africa that addresses contemporary social issues hearkens as far back as  those folk tales and proverbs, and is meant to both entertain and make you think, just like these other forms of storytelling. African writers have always felt the burden to have their stories mean something more than just the sum its plot, and that is definitely not a bad thing. The burden some African writers have felt since the post-colonial era to create work that speaks to the cultural moment has allowed for the creation of some very beautiful work by writers whose names still ring a bell today, but we most always remember that the best stories also understand the importance of putting a good story – not a message -- front and center. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Blogging the Caine Prize - Tope Folarin's "Miracle"

I am blogging The Caine Prize Shortlist with a coterie of bloggers. Check out the blog round-up for reactions to the stories on the shortlist over at ZunguZungu's. The first story we're reviewing is Tope Folarin's "Miracles" (pdf), which was first published in Transition Magazine.

Its probably not possible to a church service scene and not recall James Baldwin’s “Go Tell it on the Mountain”. One thing about that book is how palpable the belief was, the very performance of belief, and how the certainty of that performance belied the roiling humanity just beneath the surface. Tope Folarin’s “Miracle” was full of the certitude of belief, but I got much less of the humanity of its main character and his family.

I did, however, get a good sense of who the Nigerians in the church were as a collective, and the helplessness that seems to embody their narrative. It was a nice contrast to focus on the church scene in the United States, and Texas seems a great setting in which to do this. It was subtle, but I like how this helplessness hung over them like a rain-cloud even in faraway America, where they – it does not say, but I’m sure – ran to for greener pastures. I would have liked to know why his family left America, why his mother left them. We got a good sense of what the Nigerians in the church wanted deliverance from, but not so much of what this main family wanted and needed. Yes, they are working hard to make ends meet in America, but I would have liked some more about how their poverty in America has affected them socially and emotionally.

Writing-wise, I think the piece well encapsulated the air that permeated the church and its many followers, and I could almost feel the anticipation in the church for a miracle. It was all so droll, watching these people hoodwinked by a pastor, the certainty with which the pastor performed these “miracles”, as though it were all some elaborate joke in which everyone were a part of. Droll, yes, but as a Nigerian living in Nigeria that feels like she is part of an elaborate joke every damn day, it was mostly very accurate and sad to read.

I’d have liked some imagery. I’d have loved to know what the church looked like, what the altar looked like, and some hints as to what the class of people in the church was. Were they just like the lead character in the family? Were people from different backgrounds, worked different kinds of jobs? Did they know the lead character well?

It has become quite the fashion to write stories about dissatisfaction with a life in the West, but I always would like some explanation. Not because I think this is impossible, but because the root of the dissatisfaction is almost always different and enriches the story. All in all, though, great story from Folarin, and I would definitely check out more of his work.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go and the Question of Magical Immigrants

I'm excited to be joining  a coterie of bloggers to review of Caine Prize shortlisted stories, just like I did last year, mostly because my mind has been primed for literature a fair amount lately. I just ordered A. Igoni Barrett's Love Is Power or Something Like That, am currently in the middle of Doreen Baingana's short story collection Tropical Fish. I also just finished reading Taiye Selasi’s much talked-about novel Ghana Must Go this weekend, and I can say right away that you need to do read it, too. 

As far as the writing goes, it does not get much better than Selasi's poetic prose that belies a deep emotional intelligence that makes her characters feel real. I came away thinking that I had met many Kwekus and Taiwos, and did not want to stop reading about their lives. From the very first page, there are some passages that you want to just scan and frame and mount on your wall for their lyricism and intelligence and honesty. her description is painstaking and detailed with a poetry and grit that reminds of Toni Morrison. She loves language, sometimes a bit too much, giving her this tendency to over-describe and launch into (albeit gorgeous) paragraphs that do very little to advance the story. Even so, I think you'd do yourself a great disservice for not reading because of that.

One thing that grated, though, is how Selasi missed some of the more Nigerian details. It is hard to get past her mixing up mainland and Lagos island (no, Ikeja is not on the island) and I don't know anyone that eats jollof rice and egusi (maybe some poeple do, but it's an unusual combination). Also, I don't remember a woman ever calling her son okunrin mi like Fola (I think) did; it is usually something like oko mi ("oko" can mean husband, so this means something like "my dear").

I know a book is memorable when it leaves me with more than just a story, but an idea that I am grappling with days after. It is hard to read Ghana Must Go without thinking about the burden that a lot of immigrants living in the Western world face to be great. The Harvard graduates, those with high-flying jobs, those that made good on the other side in the way that gets celebrated at dinner tables back in home countries, parents dropping nugget after exaggerated nugget of their sons’ and daughters’ success in classrooms or offices full of white people. I wonder if by focusing on the most successful among us we are not reinforcing the deeper minority problem of having to work twice as hard as anyone else to get anywhere, to achieve something, to be seen. Even among ourselves, we have internalized the notion that we must be extraordinary for our stories to count. The Western world teaches us what and who to celebrate, and because we must be extraordinary to get noticed, we in turn do not easily forgive ordinariness, and tacitly accept the idea that many of us need be ignored for the few -- and there are always too few -- stars who arguably do not see their due, their achievements often filtered through a racial lens.

Selasi may not have meant for this to be so, but I found her novel negotiating with the idea of the extraordinary. Kweku Sai was an extraordinary surgeon, but his life took a left turn and he fell from grace. Taiwo, the beautiful writer and lawyer, and her equally extraordinary artist twin Kehinde, are haunted by a horrific incident at the hands of an uncle in Lagos demonstrate in different ways a gift for self-destruction. Baby Sadie, a student at Yale, shares this gift with her siblings. Olu is the perfect son with anxiety issues that you can just tell will be the bane of his relationship with his long-term girlfriend-turned-wife Ling. None of the characters in her ambitious, well-done novel are insulated from life by their degrees and accomplishments. Even overachieving immigrants get in their own way sometimes. 

It was also very affirming to read a story of immigrants from a writer of African descent that deals with issues that many of us tend to see as Western. I grew up in a Lagos where want is laid bare: early morning strivers leave for work as early as four in the morning so as not to be late for a nine o’clock start at the office; the markets always teeming with people; the street children playing hopscotch between traffic jams and the police chasing them off the streets. The issues that are readily comprehensible, and therefore immediately deserving of sympathy, were those to which the matter of concern is not directly oneself; like being widowed, being arrested by corrupt police and without just cause, being battered by one’s husband, or being robbed of one’s possessions. It is not that too many of us are without human kindness, but many of us have trouble understanding more quiet afflictions that affect the self; issues of depression, bulimia, and suicide are often treated with a wave of the hand, a tired dismissal, more personal failings than real problems deserving of sympathy.

I don't read reviews of books that I plan to read, but I did go back and check out what some folk have been saying about the book. It has been amusing to see journalists marveling over her cheekbones and cosmopolitan upbringing, and bringing up her much-talked-about essay on Afropolitans. In a way, the hubbub made of her appearance and her background reinforces her depiction of the immigrant family in her novel, one that peels away the impressive armor and questions the humanity within.