Recently in African novels and stories Category

Uwm Akpan caught by Publisher's Weekly!

A cute little interview... "if you have a family, it is good to forgive..."

Uwem Akpan, Say You’re One of Them

I have to give a talk later today on Akpan's stories, as part of a panel. thought i would indulge myself and post here. i definitely urge you to read the book, and then send it to our English-speaking libraries! A nice audio interview with Akpan is here.

Let me begin by observing that the stories in this collection are awfully saddening. They echo, in their staging of bleakness, the dystopia of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. After reading that book, my response was “grim, grim, and grim.” Uwem Akpan’s stories are even grimmer, for they are true and of the present. As anyone who has spent time living and sleeping with very poor people in Africa will confirm, Akpan’s descriptions are exact: from the windowless rooms where you sweat all night on a mat on the floor, to the clothing draped across a rope strung from ceiling to ceiling, to the sickening colors used to paint the interiors of decrepit houses with tin roofs. The darkness, dirtiness, and smelliness are so very distant from the luxury of the rooms where Akpan’s stories will be read. This distance should reignite in us a fierce desire to relearn and remember what misery is, and rededicate ourselves to the purpose of combating that misery.

I am teaching a class right now called the economics of gender in developing countries. I thought then that I would devote a few moments to exploring some of the gender dimensions to the plots and characters. Akpan’s characters, male and female, are conscious of their gendered surroundings. But they never turn into caricatures as they might under a less capable writer. Much fiction from African countries draws one of three caricatures for female characters. The first is the personality-less beauty who is the object of desire for a young man who comes of age. The young man usually has to overcome a cynical, wealthy and powerful older man who wants the girl for himself. The girl bathes by the river at least once in the novel. A second caricature is the philosophical but resigned senior wife whose husband betrays her and marries a younger scheming second wife. The third is the rebellious younger woman who flouts gender strictures and ends up a journalist in a town newspaper, much like the author herself. These very simple female characters often stand in for a didactic lesson; they never really “think” about the choices they have to make, the author makes the choices for them.

In Akpan’s stories we find women (and men) with real personalities—a little proud, a little insecure, a little cowardly. So they make real choices, sometimes choices without thinking, but rather emerging from their personalities. Akpan’s stories span five countries, and within each country where the story is set there is typically a couple of ethnic or religious groups and class strata represented in the story. The gender dimension is subordinate to the dynamics of how these other social groups drive individuals into terrible dilemmas and situations. For Akpan, and his characters, gender issues are not what drive their lives.

That said, let me point out three aspects of gender as presented in Akpan’s stories.

The first point is that gender relations in the stories are much more egalitarian than you might have thought. In An Ex-mas Feast, Mama and Baba are dysfunctionally amiable, full of bluster and threats, but with no real power over each other or even over the children. In Fattening for Gabon, the child traffickers Mama and Papa again appear as equals; evil adults, to be sure, but not bound by a gendered structure into relations of subservience. The same equality, this time for good in the face of evil, is true of Papa and Maman in My Parent’s Bedroom. Akpan portrays intimate and ordinary domestic lives where men and women very much are on the same level, even in the face of extraordinary circumstances .

The second point is that this equality between men and women emerges from apparently uncontested gender equality between brother and sister, the central characters for many of the stories. These include Maisha the child prostitute and her younger brother Jigana, in An Ex-mas Feast, Yewa and her older brother Kotchikpa in Fattening for Gabon, and the older Monique and Jean in My Parent’s Bedroom. The relationship between these siblings of different genders is the same as if they had been the same gender: they fight and care for each other as siblings, not as boys and girls.

The third point is that sometimes the nature of gender relations becomes the subject of dialogue itself; gender is not a hidden structure. The characters on the bus in Luxurious Hearses talk about gender openly. For example, one of the passengers, Emeka, the loudmouth, calls out to Madame Aniema, Tega, and Ijeoma, “Let me tell you something, you women,” as he launches into a disquisition on civilian versus military rule. The retort is quick: “What do you mean by ‘you women’”, followed by, “Yes, Mr. Man…” and then “He dey talk rike porygamous man!” In this humorous way, Akpan captures the deliberateness of men and women in negotiating public gender stereotypes.

Let me turn to another issue. The audience for Akpan’s stories is you, the people in this room. The sad fact of African publishing and reading is that the public for his fiction in Africa is a future public. The question then is how you should respond to the deliberate education (setting aside the art) offered in the stories. Should one start working as an activist, combating child trafficking? Should one graduate from the university and move to Nigeria and work promoting mutual tolerance between Muslims and Christians? Or should one join the Genocide Intervention Network?

The answers to these questions would seem like obvious affirmatives, except that recently there has been a wave of criticism against naïve activism and do-gooders who produce unintended consequences. I am thinking in particular of Mahmood Mamdani’s just-published diatribe against the Save Darfur movement, entitled Saviors and Survivors. He makes plenty of valid points, particularly about the self-indulgence of this kind of activism that is more explicitly about consciousness-raising than direct action. Should this criticism delay your involvement? Is the responsible thing to do to spend ten more years learning how to fully understand Mamdani and other such critics before you begin to act? I am somewhat sympathetic to this view, as a late-comer myself to the world of action and activism—I started Friends of African Village Libraries in 2001, and not as a twenty-something. But only somewhat sympathetic. I think that experience and knowledge are valuable traits in making the world a better place, but passion and dedication, without the burdening responsibilities of professional and family life, are also valuable traits. And I note that while the image of Save Darfur is of young people, the board of directors and the executive of the organization are people much older and with much experience. So each person can and should respond to these stories in their own way.

Let me close by saying that whatever your response, at the very least you will take Akpan’s admonition of the title seriously, and “Say You’re One of Them.”
The African Literature community at Librarything have a long list filled with suggestions and commentary. One entry:
It seems no one has mentioned one of my favorite African writers - Amos Tutuola whose book A Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts are both wonderful books. They may be attempts at writing folk tales in the magic realist style, and questionably authentic, but I love them.
Also wonderful, and relatively new is the Whale Caller by a famous writer Zakes Mda.Wonderful and not new is the Nobelist Nadine Gordimer whose anti-apartheid books were powerful.And Coetzee 's Disgrace is one of the most touching and moving stories of the South African racial dilemma.
And tukopamoja had his Africa reading challenge here.
If you are looking for ideas, here is a list of the 100 best African books of the 20th century, collected at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (many of the books in other languages are available in translation; just search for the author). Here are some of my favorite books dealing with Africa. I will be posting regularly about my experience with the challenge on my main blog page. [If you don't have a blog, people are also posting about the challenge over at Shelfari.]

J.M. Coetzee's Youth

My sister passed on to me the short novel/memoir... I found it depressing, of course. The prose is extremely straightforward, but never sparkles (whatever that means!). More importantly, I found it unrealistic. It seems very forced. There is much genuineness in the portrayal of the young man leaving South Africa for England, and setting out on life alone, eventually working as a computer programmer, and I certainly "know" the various moments of the young man's life, but honestly, no human that intelligent has such a dull interior life, who is Coetzee kidding? Every thought the young man has is a 'derived" thought from something that he was reading, and he never seems to have any thoughts of his own. Absolutely no humor, irony, sarcasm in the young man's thinking. Could it really have been that way? The book feels like a joke on the reader- a formal exercise. (For deeper analysis, see this essay by Donald Vanouse.)

Graphic novels: Aya and The Quitter

I've just finished two graphic novels. Aya, by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clément Oubrerie, which I've mentioned before, is a delightful capsule of well-to-do Ivory Coast in the 1970s. The sepia and earth tones are delightful. The story is a bit confusing, because it revolves around the sexual hijinks of two of a trio of girl friends, and they are not drawn very differently, so i found myself at some point realizing I wasn't sure who was who. An important lesson. The story itself is light soap-opera, and much is left unsaid. That is, there is no interior voice of the characters at all. Reminds us how innovative Proust and Woolf etc. were in their time, making that radical shift from the narrator (who may tell you what the characters are thinking) to the "voice" of the character, etc.

The Quitter, by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by Dean Haspiel, is in black and white, and is the opposite of Aya. Billed as semi-autobiographical, it is a fascinating portrait of a "quitter," Pekar himself. You have to know the story to know what he means. But the self-psychologizing-- the recognition, at 65, of what he was at 10 years old-- is amazing. As the father of a 10 year old, and having been one myself, I appreciate how insightful Pekar is. The disarming thing is the text flows along in an entirely straightforward style, so there is almost no style. The writing is so simple, but you realize how hard it is to get to that level of simplicity. See, I can't do it on this blog! The scene I love: Pekar recounts how his father comes to pick him up at elementary school, and Pekar suddenly realizes he is embarrassed by his father, and runs away, and when his father finally catches up, Pekar is relieved his father doesn't "realize" that he is embarrassed! And of course this is Pekar at 65 remembering his emotional state at age 8.
Just finished this interesting book, Mémoires de porc-épic by Alain Mabanckou. Hard to know what to say. The story is very straightforward. What I see in some of the online commentary is "aventures rocambolesques." A man and his porcupine double "eat" the residents of the village. People who live in Africa for any length of time are familiar with the idea, a favorite topic of anthropologists (is it real? false consciousness? me?). The people in Africa who I like best, as you may know, are the ones who say, "I have no time for such mysteries." The style and voice are more important than the text. No sentences, instead each short chapter is a long fluid paragraph. And I will say they are quite interesting here, but I do not know if my French is subtle enough to capture it. So I'm at loss for words.

Contes Du Pays Des Moose: Burkina Faso

My colleague Nina Tanti is translating another colleague's book, Stories of the Moose country, by Alain Sissao. It is a collection of folktales that Alain collected over the 1980s and 1990s. Curiously, many of them are reminiscent of folktales I've read that were collected in northern Sudan. Lots of arbitrary killing of animal, ogres, chiefs, women and children. The hyena is the figure of ridicule, the hare of cleverness. I'm sure there is a deep logic to it all! I enjoyed Alain's crisp rendering of the tales: for an advanced French reader (though hardly fluent) who is also very comfortable with Burkinabè French style, it is a pleasure to read. Nina's translations should bring the book to a wider audience.

FAVL friend Shane Auerbach writes:
I really like your list of West African novels on Amazon. I think that you should consider adding Massa Makan Diabate from Mali to that list. Like L'etrange destin de Wangrin, Diabate's novels are an incredible bookmark in Malian history. The humor in his novels is unbeatable, and it's also fascinating to consider his development as a writer, given his family's tradition as a family of griots (Described well in an biography of Diabate written by Cherif Cheick Keita). Although he wrote several Sunjata fasas, for me his most important work is his trilogy of novels:

Le Lieutenant de Kouta
Le Coiffeur de Kouta
Le Boucher de Kouta

They're all based in Kita, Mali. I think all of them merit being on your list. If you had to pick one, however, I would probably stick with the first, Le Lieutenant.

Anyway, keep up the good, and important, work that you do.

Great interview with Chinua Achebe

"Where one thing stands, another thing stands beside it." I love that proverb... Achebe interprets: There are no absolutes.

Devil on the Cross - Ngugi

On the plane to and from Senegal I had the pleasure of reading Devil on the Cross, by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. It is an excellent "experimental" and polemical novel, supposedly written on toilet paper while in prison. "Searing" is the adjective I see a lot on websites, and it does move through an indictment of Kenyan capitalism at brutal speed. Sometimes a little overbearing, and the contemporary reader wishes that the "laying it on thick" were a bit more subtle or ironic. Here's a neat article from a Ghanaian newspaper.

Here's a video clip of Ngugi:


Books, reading, and libraries relevant to Africa by Michael Kevane, co-Director of FAVL and economist at Santa Clara University.

Other contributors include Kate Parry, FAVL-East Africa director, FAVL Burkina Faso representative Koura Donkoui, FAVL Burkina Faso program manager Krystle Nanema, and FAVL friends Emilie Crofton and Elisee Sare.

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