Sunday, December 25, 2005

best books of 2005: writers' choices

Nigerian writers have been looking back on the last 12 months and selecting some of the books that provided their best reading moments. Diran Adebayo (author of Some Kind of Black), Akin Adesokan (Roots in the Sky), Helen Oyeyemi (The Icarus Girl) and Odia Ofeimun are among those discussing their books of the year, below.

Diran Adebayo
I really enjoyed John Burnside's latest collection of poetry, The Good Neighbour (Faber). The rhyme and triggers of his poems always feel natural and unforced, their 'lessons' precise and never overblown. There are wise, warm thoughts here on love and intimacy, aloneness and landscape; our needs in the world.

One non-fiction book that was both strong and timely was American linguist John McWhorter's Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music (Arrow). It argues that, since the countercultural forces of the sixties, a craving for informality in Americans' use of English has debased the language there to the point where their ability to think in complex ways and convey complex thoughts is threatened. He's a bit too sweetly nostalgic in some parts for my tastes, but I certainly agree with his main point: that the West is in danger of throwing some precious babies out with the bathwater.

Akin Adesokan
The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man's Gate by Jeremy Harding - This small book by a British journalist (published in 2002) has a powerful argument in support of the migration of poor and desperate people to Europe. Harding writes with passion and a deep interest in the value of the human being, and he doesn't shy away from the fact that economic migration is motivated by political troubles. Although he's dealing with a subject that's sometimes harrowing to contemplate, the writer has a way with the elegance of commonsense. When you come across a sentence that says: "The racially diverse society is a deeply troubling notion in Europe," you know you're facing that rare thing - a good book.

Zenzele: A Letter For My Daughter by J. Nozipo Maraire - Again, this isn't a new book; it was published in 1996, but I found out about it quite recently. It's written as a letter from a Zimbabwean mother to her daughter who's starting school at Harvard, the idea being to encourage this young woman to draw strength from her history as an African. Zenzele is not a conventional story. It's not an immigrant's story, and not a simple account of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe. But if you're looking for an intelligent reflection on what it takes to be African and maintain your dignity in the world today, I highly recommend this book.

Isioma Daniel
Disgrace by J. M Coetzee: I read this on holiday and it almost ruined the holiday for me. It is a powerful, brutally honest book on the shifting balance of power in South Africa. It's the kind of book that wakes up all these ugly, nasty, lingering feelings we all have about race, women and politics. So it's not dinner table conversation. The best thing about the book is that it disturbed me and forced me to think about these very unpleasant facets of race relations, and of men. I didn't sympathise with anyone in the book, but why should an author create characters who seem like they are trying to win a popularity contest?

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is profound. It should have won the 2004 Booker Prize. I love the way the book is built up to resemble life's puzzle, with each page bringing you closer to the future or taking you back to the past so you can get the whole picture. I think the best books are the ones that leave you feeling like an omniscient God.

Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Edward P. Jones' A Known World were also memorable.

Ikhide R. Ikheloa
The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar Straus Giroux) is an essay on steroids. It's thesis is that the internet and related technologies are redefining traditional relationships and in essence "flattening" the world; for example, America and the West use the internet to access resources in India and China and produce goods and services in a cost-effective manner. The world is getting smaller and "flatter", relationships are traversing geographic boundaries and today's world is a far cry from the way things were before the coming of the internet. I recommend this book for one reason: the West sees Africa as a vast wasteland of disease and war with little redeeming value.

Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe: This ought to be required reading for all those who care about telling our story. It is clear that Achebe has thought long and hard about our story. My favourite line: "Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

Toni Kan
My two best books are: An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, which is not just one of the best books written about love but also about music. It was a soundtrack to my life at first reading. The feeling is still the same at second reading;

The Oil Lamp by Ogaga Ifowodo (Africa World Press), because it is an elegant dirge. A song about injustice but one that rings out in beauty. Reading Ifowodo is at once an uplifting and humbling experience. He is without doubt the best of his generation.

Niran Okewole
Roots in the Sky by Akin Adesokan (Festac Books) stands confidently in the rank of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Soyinka (Season of Anomy) and Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) - works in which the margin between fantasy and grim reality is blurred. The deft mastery of the author belies the context in which it was written. The end product is a credible sublimation and creative transmutation of an involved witness, an emphatic testament to the radical collective will.

Recent Nigerian fiction bears the magnetic imprint of women. None is more enchanting than Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta (Farafina) - a first novel in which the author explores with devastating control and disarming simplicity what it means to be a woman in the turbulent labyrinth called Nigeria. One hears echoes of Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, even Sylvia Plath; but the author still manages to stamp on our consciousness a crystal voice which is unquestionably hers.

Helen Oyeyemi
My books of 2005 are Smashed: The Story of a Drunken Childhood by Koren Zailckas (Viking) and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar Strauss Giroux). Smashed combines acute prose, memoir and social critique in this story of being a girl and being out of control, and the way that sometimes these states of being feed into each other. Zailckas offers a beautiful, dizzying account of a search for womanhood in a fractured world of her own making where, in what she thought was the middle of the day, 'dusk lands like a 747.'

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a novel, consists of a quiet, letter-based dialogue between a pastor in the American Mid-West - now an old man on the brink of death - and his son, a boy who is too young to understand yet what struggles a person has to go through to know their own spirit and make a final reckoning for the ordinary acts of their life. This book is profoundly moving.

Odia Ofeimun
Sefi Atta's first novel, Everything Good Will Come and Ogaga Ifowodo's third collection of poems, The Oil Lamp were, for me, the highpoints of creative writing in 2005.

Atta delves into familiar territories of urban experience in a manner and language that cuddles instant mythmaking. It is the growing-up story of a young lawyer, Enitan, and her friend, Sheri, two young women in the Lagos of the early into the fourth decade of Nigeria's independence. They cope with a city and a country in which parents fail their children and leaders savage the led. There is, in the novel, a feminist or if you like, a post-feminist inclination to see women against the choices, that they, on their own, must make, or do make, in a world that is not just a man's world. Everything Good Will Come is an exciting fabulation of how the future begins today in the modes in which the young grow.

Ifowodo's The Oil Lamp is a consummate, far-reaching poetic interrogation of the tragedies and absurdities that have plagued the people of the Niger Delta in the hands of corporate and 'military' pacifiers. In Madiba, his last collection of poems, the travails and triumphs of a durable freedom fighter provide keys to the rendering of affirmative memories; in The Oil Lamp, the endless run of disasters, genocides and biocides in the Niger Delta are strung together to reveal a collapsed sense of humanity in the world controlled by greedy pacifiers. Ten years after the judicial murder of Ken Saro Wiwa, the poet asks: "Can anyone think of the Niger Delta / and not feel an ache in his heart?"

This year saw the publication of a non-fiction book which was set at an angle to this question. The Next Gulf: London, Washington, and Oil Conflict in Nigeria (Constable, UK, 2005) , is co-authored by journalists and environmentalists - Andy Rowell, James Marriot and Lorne Stockman. The book points to the growing, oil-induced, economic and strategic importance of the Gulf of Guinea against the background of the over-heated situation in the Middle East. The next gulf is presented as a zone of savage exploitation, barefaced robberies and brazen swindles, which hark back to the devilries of the transatlantic slave trade. The book sends up the G8 countries, all of them do-good countries in the world's media that they control, for what they are: they are given a finger but they take the whole hand with the collaboration of greedy local elites. The rapacity and callousness of the coalition between native greed and corporate insensitivity is seen in the light of the cover provided by the home states of the multinationals, so-called developed countries. They arm-twist poor developing countries to bow to moribund notions of free trade and free enterprise which they don't apply in their own economies.

Although not intended to, The Kiss of Death - Afenifere and the Infidels by Olawale Oshun (Josel Publishers, UK, 2005) explains why it is easy for the multi-nationals to get away with murder. It narrates the unconscionable self-immolation and self-distracting behaviour of one of Nigeria's principal political families, and, how goal-orientation has been sacrificed to the worship of inflated egos. The book touches upon core-issues in the shameless and feckless pursuit of irrelevance that have marked out Nigeria's political class as a tribe of wastrels, wasting a golden legacy.

Next Week: More Writers' Choices.;

Reader's Books of the Year
Which book did you enjoy reading most during the year and why? Was it a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry? Send us your choice of ONE book, not forgetting the author's name - and tell us in no more than 100 words why you recommend it to other readers. A selection of reader's chosen books will be featured on this page. Please send your contribution to Molara Wood at: - by Friday 6th January.

*Published today in The Guardian, Lagos


Anonymous Obiwu said...

"Beasts of No Nation" (New York: Harper Collins, 2005): Uzodinma Iweala's "Beasts of No Nation" is obviously my best book of 2005, first because of the highly inspiring consciousness of the twenty-three year old writer, and second because of the run-away narrative thriller! Every line is a dread: "The girl is so shrinking, she is almost like unborn baby" (chapt. 4, p. 45). One needs to read chapter 6 to see how Africa is doing to her children what Kaunda ("Zambia Shall Be Free") says white colonial missionaries did to their little black boy-servants. Iweala's linguistic enchantment haunts the reader with the rhythmic familiarity of Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" and Okri's "The Famished Road." Exceptional artistic originality usually comes with its own intriguing cadence, as we have seen in Bob Marley's swoontrot and Micheal Jackson's moonwalk. "Beasts of No Nation" is a gorgeous entry to the gaping void left by the heartlessness of ethnic and religious genocides in Africa. It also makes our forthcoming "'Biafran Babies': Anthology of Stories on War and Genocide" worth the while.

"Jung in Africa" (New York: Continuum, 2005): Blake Burleson's book complements Elisabeth Roudinesco's "Jacques Lacan" in the disciplinary development of the history of psychoanalysis. I choose "Jung in Africa" as one of my two books of 2005 not only because it is a tourist's delight, but moreso because it is the first true recognition of the much ignored role of Africa's contribution to the foundational development of psychoanalysis and ego psychology. What it lacks by not paying much attention to the possible influence or confluence of the African "psychological expeditions" of some of Jung's professional colleagues, it more that makes up in the close detail to Jung's own routes and itinerary. Burleson justifies my five-year research on Lacan in Africa and the history of psychoanalysis in Africa.


11:59 pm, January 04, 2006  
Anonymous mw said...


Thanks for your comment, by which you've given visitors to my blog a teaser of what's in store for the next 'Writer's Best'... to be published this coming Sunday.

Superb choices...


10:40 pm, January 05, 2006  

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