Saturday, January 28, 2006

ngugi wa thiong'o - the outsider

"I told them I wanted to be in touch with the everyday. But we returned to a nightmare" - says Ngugi wa Thiong'o, of his return to his native Kenya in August 2004, after 22 years in exile.

The author of Weep Not Child, A Grain of Wheat, Decolonising The Mind and other great books, recalls some of this nightmare in a profile that appears in today's UK Guardian.

Excerpt: Two weeks into their visit, the couple were attacked by four men in their high-security apartment complex. Ngugi was beaten and his face burned with cigarettes. Njeeri was sexually assaulted - an ordeal she made public, she says, to combat pressures on women to remain silent about abuse. A laptop and jewellery were stolen. Three security guards and a nephew of Ngugi's by marriage were remanded on charges of robbery with violence, and one count of rape. The trial, which began in November 2004, is in its final stages, and the couple have returned twice to give evidence. "I don't want to play with my life," Ngugi says, "but we're determined not to be driven out of the country." Nairobi is notorious for crime. But in his view, "it wasn't a simple robbery. It was political - whether by remnants of the old regime or part of the new state outside the main current. They hung around as though waiting for something, and the whole thing was meant to humiliate, if not eliminate, us." They were held in separate rooms. "When I heard my wife scream, that was the end," he recalls. "Life wasn't worth living - there was nothing left to protect. I said, 'You can kill me'." He made a dash for the door. "They rushed to stop me - including the person raping my wife. Njeeri found me [outside] on the ground with three people on top of me covering my mouth, and a gun pointed at my temple." Yet the noise may have frightened off the assailants. "I don't think we were meant to come out alive. We think there's a bigger circle of forces - not just those who attacked us. I don't know if we'll ever reach the truth. But I'm sure that if it had happened under the Moi regime, we wouldn't be alive."

Read the rest of 'The Outsider' a profile of Ngugi wa Thiong'o - here.

aspects of the thames 2

The Millbank Tower is the tall building in this picture, one side of it glinting a brilliant silver in the sun. A bit of the London Eye can be seen as a curve to the building's left.

One often forgets that one lives in a great city of the world. This cityscape above reminds me, and hints of other famous skylines. Taken from a great height on 12 January.

tomorrow is too far... Chimamanda N. Adichie

It was the last summer you spent in Nigeria, the summer before your parents’ divorce, before your mother swore you would never again set foot in Nigeria to see your father’s family, especially not Grandmama. You remember the heat of that summer clearly, even now, thirteen years later, the way Grandmama’s yard felt like a steamy bathroom, a yard with so many trees that the telephone wire was tangled in leaves and different branches touched one another and sometimes mangoes appeared on cashew trees and guavas on mango trees. The thick mat of decaying leaves was soggy under your bare feet. Yellow-bellied bees buzzed around you, your brother Nonso and your cousin Dozie’s heads. Grandmama let only your brother Nonso climb the trees to shake a loaded branch, although you were a better climber than he was. Fruits would rain down, avocados and cashews and guavas, and you and your cousin Dozie would fill old buckets with fruit...

The above is excerpted from a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tomorrow is too Far, published in the current edition of Prospect Magazine. Read the rest online, here.

Adichie is flanked in this picture by her brother, Chuks, and his wife, Tinu.
Taken at the Royal Festival Hall, London, April 2005.

aspects of the thames

A week before the doomed Thames whale (which turned out to be a 'she') made its appearance, I took these pictures of the river from the 11th floor of a nearby building. I particularly love the one of the sun upon the water, above.

Monday, January 23, 2006

first chapters...

For those yet to lay hands on a copy of Uzodimma Iweala's debut novel, Beasts of No Nation - the first chapter is available to read online.

Some other first chapters from notable novels:
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

Saturday, January 21, 2006

granta 92 - view from africa

The current issue of Granta Magazine of New Writing is no.92 and focuses on the African continent. Titled ' The View From Africa', it includes new fiction from:

Segun Afolabi - Gifted, about a woman's escape with her two children from an abusive husband and loneliness in Japan... and her touching friendship with a Japanese man in her building;

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - The Master, narrated by the houseboy of a teacher - is an extract from her novel-in-progress, Half of a Yellow Sun.

Binyavanga Wainaina has written a satirical essay, sending up European 'experts' on Africa, in How To Write About Africa.

There is non-fiction by Adewale Maja-Pierce. Legacies is about his conflicted relationship with his father and his experience of growing up mixed-race, between parents, countries and cultures.

Other contributors include Kwame Dawes, Helon Habila and Moses Isegawa. A review of the current edition is in today's UK Guardian.

whale watching in london

A great drama of nature - arresting and irresistible - is playing itself out on the River Thames in Central London. A whale was sighted yesterday morning by a man who thought at first that he must be hallucinating. Don't blame him; I'd have thought the same if I'd seen the dorsal fin of a whale when I took the above picture by the Thames on Thursday 12th January, just a week before the 16-18ft northern bottle-nosed whale got stranded thousands of miles from home in the deep blue sea - to find itself dioriented and greatly endangered in the shallow waters of the Thames. This is the first whale seen in the Thames since records began in 1913.

It's a surreal piece of news and thousands have been flocking to the banks of the Thames to catch sight of the whale. There was a lot of anxiety for the whale overnight, when there were real fears that it could have died. Freewilly made it through the night. "We are watching history in the making," I've just heard a SKY News presenter say. And he's right. Something we are not likely to see in the Thames again in a lifetime, something we should never have seen had things been right - with the whale and with nature. A never before attempted (in London anyway) rescue is now under way to try and save the whale.

We know that in the film starring a young Elijah Wood, things ended happily for the cinematic whale. Life does not end tidily and it remains to be seen how this great real life drama will end. Apparently, the very fact that this marine mammal came into shallow waters may be an indication that something is wrong with it. This means the only option is not just to get the whale back to the sea, they may have no choice but to 'put it to sleep', if vets determine that it is too ill to survive in the deep. A tough decision, and thousands of Londoners are watching with keen interest, many of them are standing right there by the banks of the Thames.

"We apologise, this is all a bit London-centric but you will agree this is a pretty extraordinary event," says the SKY presenter. How true.

Friday, January 20, 2006

drifting in the west end

What a night I’ve had. I was to attend the Manthia Diawara talk earlier tonight - at the British Museum. It would have been my first event on the Art beat this year. Unfortunately, I’d neglected to arrange my Press Pass in advance but, since it was a free event anyway, I thought I’d just book myself a place like everyone else. And so I let things slide… until the last day when I rang and rang the British Museum’s box office in order to book my place for later in the evening. But every time I got through, I was put on hold for such unbelievable lengths of time that I always had to hang up in the end.

Getting to the Brit Museum just after 6pm, the Information Desk said: yes, there were still lots of seats available for the event but I would have to join the long queue at the Ticket Desk to secure a place. Joined the queue, along with those wanting to see a film about Julius Caesar and last minute viewers f0r a Samuel Palmer exhibition, which ends on Sunday… I could hear those hoping to make these two events being turned away at the top of the queue with the words: ‘sold out’, ‘sold out’. Gosh, the British Museum is busy tonight, I thought. The museum’s magnificent Great Court looked strangely empty to me. But then I realised why. The Tree of Life - made from decommissioned weapons from the Mozambican war - which stood in the Great Court for the best part of last year (as part of Africa 05) - is gone. It’s now on permanent display in the museum’s Africa Galleries; hope to view it there sometime soon.

I eventually reached the top of the queue and… disappointment. The event was full! There goes one whole article! I thought. Deflated, I walked out of the museum, heading towards Totteham Court Road, wondering what I should now do with myself. At an Oxford Street traffic light, I looked down the road, thinking of whipping out my camera for a picture, but then the lights turned green so I gave up the idea and proceeded to cross. As I did so, this guy next to me said: ‘Don’t worry love, I’ll protect ya.” On hearing what he said next, I regretted having laughed politely at his first remark. “I’m your gangsta.” He was English and looked like no gangsta to me. On Charing Cross Road, the guy caught up with me and somewhat unexpectedly, apologised: “I’m sorry for saying that to you, love. I didn’t mean to say that.” He sounded drunk, so maybe it had been the drink talking. I accepted the apology, wished him a nice evening and continued on my way.

I’d decided to just walk, not knowing quite where it would end. I’d not walked down Charing Cross Road for a while, and it was nice just to see all the bookshops, old and new. Sex also came out forcefully from under all the books, so to speak. The Soho Bookshop boasted “a fully licensed sex shop downstairs”; I went into Foyles but my aimlessness drove me out earlier than would normally be the case. I reached Cambridge Circus from where I connected Shaftesbury Avenue. On seeing the Curzon cinema there, I settled on seeing a film; this particular one wasn’t showing anything I wanted to see. Then Chinatown winked at me from Gerrard Place… I crossed over. I took a leisurely stroll down Gerrard Street, through the heart of Chinatown… taking in the many Chinese restaurants, shops and the tourists busy with their cameras.

Then it was back onto Shaftesbury Avenue and more walking, until I landed smack in Leicester Square - London’s moviedom. By now it was a case of ‘what to see’. The main Odeon cinema there was showing King Kong; I decided to hold on to my cinematic memory of Fay Wray and Jessica Lange as Kong’s desired blonde, and left Naomi Watts' own portrayal for another day. Jarhead was showing at the Empire… tantalising as the name of Jamie Foxx on the cast list was, this wasn’t the kind of movie I wanted to see tonight, so I gave it a miss. At the Vue, Memoirs of a Geisha and Brokeback Mountain looked interesting.

Brokeback Mountain won the day. I purchased a ticket for an 8.30pm showing, but it was only just past 7. My stomach needed attention, so, more browsing round the many eateries… another aimless stroll to the National Portrait Gallery and back, then sat to some noodles in some tiny place called Chopstix. 8.30, and I was in the Vue’s packed auditorium no.5 for Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Ledger (playing Ennis Del Mar) & Jake Gyllenhaal as cowboys who fall in love - yeah, with each other - and then spend the rest of their lives trying to work through their feelings. ‘Jack Fxxxing Twist!’ Ledger’s character likes to say of Gyllenhaal’s character. Very involving film, breathtaking scenery.

I was back on the street just past 11pm, heading towards Piccadilly Circus station. Leicester Square was teeming with people… the club crowd were out and queueing to get into some nitespot or other. I was heading for home. One man aimed a playful kick at the backside of a woman walking ahead of me; she had the good sense not to respond. “I love you, honest!” he shouted drunkenly after her. It dawned on those around that he didn’t even know his ‘lover’, something that really amazed another woman behind me. “I was sure he knew her!” she exclaimed.

Getting into the station, I was about to get on the escalator leading to the Bakerloo line when I saw another set of strangers made lovey-dovey by alcohol. Two girls at the top of the Piccadilly Line escalator blew kisses at a man you could just tell they’d only met earlier in the evening. “We love you, we’ll miss you,” they said, as the escalator ferried them away from him. He turned round to go his own way, but then two policemen who’d been standing by decided to have themselves some fun, and pulled the man to one side. He was hopelessly drunk, I observed, as my escalator descended, taking him out of view. Who knows what they’ll find on him? I wondered. Who knows what they’ll ‘do’ him for? Who knows if he’ll end up in some cell? And wouldn’t that be the final kick up his ass?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

manthia diawara - we won't budge

Manthia Diawara is the author of We Won't Budge, a new book published in Britain by Ayebia Press. Tomorrow, Diawara joins novelist Diran Adebayo in conversation, sharing his views on why 'the black man in America bears the curse of Cain.

Stevenson Lecture Theatre
Clore Education Centre
British Museum, London

Date: Friday 20th January
Time: 6.30-8pm
Tel: 020 7323 8181
*Admission is free but please book first.

Manthia Diawara is a New York University professor and film maker. His 'lyrical, layered memoirs explore the complexities of being "an African exile in the world" based on his own experiences as a Malian in Europe & America.

nii ayikwei parkes...fiction extract

Below is a new 'First Page' from writer Nii Ayikwei Parkes. It's from his novel-in-progress. Enjoy...

I had grown used to death, its weight, and its company. It surrounded me. The bloodiest death came just when I was about to escape. Like a sign.

I was combing through the bustle of Accra Central, heading out towards Kingsway Store to buy ham and baking soda for my mother. Because of the sheer number of people in the area around the market and the commercial centre many of us were walking through in the middle of the road. I heard a screeching sound and turned to see a Bedford truck with a locally-made wooden wagon hurtling down towards me. The driver's mate was leaning at an acute angle outside the doorless passenger side, making pre-flight wing motions with his arms, shooing people. Screaming, No brake, no brake, a dze gbe le mli, while the driver wrestled with the hoarse gears to bring the vehicle under control.

I jumped out of the way and felt a severe back spasm just as I landed on the pavement side of the gutter beside the road. I fell on my rear groaning. When I looked back at the road I saw a muscled, bare-chested man walking directly into the path of the lorry. His eyes were fixed on me. I waved to indicate I was OK but he didn't seem to notice. His face was composed and he showed no sign of fear.

The entire crowd yelled at him to move; Buulu, dze gbe le mli, Kwasia, you no go move? It was clear he had more than enough time. I was paralysed by pain as I watched him amble to the middle of the road and smile at me as the truck struck him clean in the back and his head exploded in all directions. People dodged out of the way of his airborne blood as the truck careered into the side of the police barracks and stopped. The driver's mate himself was tossed out by the impact and was rescued from the top of a bougainvillea hedge by some men in the crowd. The driver was slumped over his wheel, alive but shocked. The truck was juxtaposed between the gutter and the low wall of the police barracks, one rear wheel still spinning, the imprint of the man marking its front.

writers' fund in ghana

Nii Ayikwei Parkes set up a Writers' Fund in his native Ghana in 2005. His only wish over the Christmas period was that people donate to the fund... an ongoing wish.

You can support writers in Ghana by donating to the fund set up by Ayikwei Parkes.

You can also help to equip the reading centre being set up at the Pan African Writers Association headquarters in Accra by buying books as donation. Do this by visiting the Writers Fund wishlist. Second-hand books are more than welcome.

Here's wishing for a similar initiative in Nigeria...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

essay by uzodinma iweala

It is starting like this. I am coming home one day when the sun is already going to his home, to be finding one magazine just lying like that on the table. It is telling me many things like what is happening in this world. What president and normal man is doing. What is happening with internet and computer. And it is also telling me that in this world they are using children to be killing killing — killing each other and all the other person in their hometown. I am not knowing too much about this as I am young person and young person in America is normally not thinking too much about anything but sport and womans and music. But when I am seeing this kind thing in magazine, it is making me to stop and say Kai!

The above is from an essay by Uzodinma Iweala, author of the much talked about debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, told in the voice of an African child soldier, Agu. Interestingly, Iweala's essay is also written as Agu himself might have rendered it.

Read the rest of the essay here.

books of 2005: writers' choices (3)

Compiled by Molara Wood

Here discussing books they enjoyed reading in the last 12 months, are some of the literary newsmakers of 2005. They include: Segun Afolabi who became Nigeria’s second Caine Prize winner last July; Wale Okediran, newly elected president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA); and Sefi Atta whose book tour of Nigeria and Ghana following the publication of her novel, Everything Good Will Come - was one of the highlights of the literary calendar. Two winners from the first Olaudah Equiano Prize For Fiction, Anietie Isong (2nd Prize) and Chika Unigwe (3rd Prize), also select their best books of the last year - below.

Segun Afolabi
Train by Pete Dexter (Doubleday) - Los Angeles 1953. Lionel Walk (Train) is a teenaged black caddy working at the elite Brookline Country Club. He meets the enigmatic Sergeant Miller Packard, the only golfer who treats him with respect, and so begins a rollercoaster journey of humour, intrigue and violence. A beautifully written novel about racism, love and the human condition.

Erasure by Percival Everett - Thelonious "Monk" Ellison is a frustrated literary author whose books are seldom read. When he witnesses the success of a commercial novel entitled "We’s Lives in Da Ghetto", he decides to write a parody of the genre. However, his novel, "My Pafology" - basically a re-versioning of Richard Wright’s "Native Son" - becomes a huge bestseller, much to his bewilderment. Wildly funny and moving in parts, it’s a serious investigation of family, publishing and what it means to be black in the world.

Afam Akeh
I have tried this year to properly enter the important and now substantial Nigerian work of Biyi Bandele. Regarding fiction, I found Jonathan Safran Foer an engaging stylist. His new novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Hamish Hamilton, 2005) assures him the critical respect which began with an earlier work, the award winning Everything is Illuminated.

However, my focus in 2005, as in the year before, has been on Poetry and Poetry Theory. This is a continuing enquiry for proposed future activism, defining the contemporary in 21st Century African Poetry. For this, Oral Literature & performance in Southern Africa (Duncan Brown, ed, 1999), Graphic Poetry (Victionary, 2005) and the vital work by Rob Hope, Creativity: Theory, History, Practice (Routledge, 2005), were among my useful companions.

Sefi Atta
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - This novel is long overdue, short and unbelievably sweet. It is so considerate these days for any author to write a short novel, and always generous when a master storyteller reminds us of the sad state of our humanity. Who knew I could empathise with a protagonist who is basically a dirty old man? I read this novel and just kept staring at every elderly man, wondering: "What does he want most, some kind of deep affirmation of his life or a dose of viagra?"

Nnorom Azuonye
Under African Skies - Modern African Stories, Charles R. Larson, ed - The 2005 edition was a regular hand luggage for me through the year. There is a certain connection I have with this volume, perhaps because of its eclectic line up of some of the best African writers including: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Achebe, Okri and Camara Laye. Reading the entire collection in one weekend was like a baptism of fire. It is interesting that Wole Soyinka’s "Telephone Conversation" - that fine example of flash fiction sometimes classified as a poem - opens the collection. The line, "I hate a wasted journey - I am African" resonates with me always as I constantly appraise what I and other immigrants outside Africa are really doing with our lives. Are these wasted journeys or are they actually equipping us better for the eventual benefit of our individual selves and Africa as a whole?

To me, Under African Skies is the finest introduction to African fiction for anybody who cannot spare the time to read novels. Although I suspect that after such stories as "Black Girl" (Sembene Ousmane), "Papa, Snake and I" (Luis Honwana), "Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals" (Yvonne Vera), and the didactic, hilarious "The Complete Gentleman" by Amos Tutuola among others, the hunt for the writers’ longer narratives will be inevitable, and I dare say that any would-be short story writer would benefit from the amazing attention to details of plot and topicality, depth of characterisation, and ear for dialogue of the writers in this collection.

Golden Harvest (How to become a centre of love) by White Eagle - A book of practical Christian philosophy and mysticism, it came into my life at a most difficult time, the kind of time that has been known and referred to as the dark night of the soul. Encountering the gentle words of White Eagle is akin to the wisdom Pepel received from Luka in Maxim Gorki’s "The Lower Depths". It also bears out the old saying that the obvious is not obvious until somebody makes it so. It is not that I had not heard or read these things before. It is that I paid no real attention.

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (Harper Collins, 2005) is 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 Michael 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 by Blake Burleson (Continuum, 2005) complements Elisabeth Roudinesco's Jacques Lacan in the disciplinary development of the history of psychoanalysis. I recommend "Jung in Africa" 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 than 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.

Anietie Isong
I loved the diction of Small Island by Andrea Levy (Review). The style reminded me of Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place. Levy’s writing is exceptional and the theme is apt, as I am also interested in the immigrant experience.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri - This is a short story writer I’ve just discovered. She has a way with words and one of the stories in this collection, titled ‘A Temporary Matter’, moved me greatly. It is about the sour relationship between a young Indian couple in America. Like Levy, Lahiri explores the theme of mobility and the calamities that befall foreigners… Women make the best writers.

During 2005, I also stumbled upon Cyprian Ekwensi’s Surviving The Peace at the University of Leicester’s Library in Britain. I was the first person to borrow it in about ten years! I enjoyed the book so much, I renewed it four times.

Wale Okediran
He Gave Me Wings by Funso Adegbola (Book Builders, Nigeria, 2005) is a brief memoire about the late Attorney General, Chief Bola Ige - the author’s father and my political mentor. Very familiar, sometimes emotional and quite eulogising, the book tells about the life of a famous politician hrough the eyes of an adoring daughter. It also relates to the outside world Bola Ige's passion and panache for public service even in the face of obvious threat to his life. Above all, it showed the subject to be a good family man despite his very busy schedule.

Coming after the book My Father, His Daughter by the daughter of the late Israeli strongman, Moshe Dayan, He Gave Me Wings is an important but sadly ignored part of our literature. Apart from giving us a peep into the domestic lives of our public figures, this kind of writing can also answer that often asked question of the impact of public life on the family unit.

The autobiography of that great literary figure, 1982 Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Living To Tell The Tale (Penquin, 2004), was translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman. It tells the tale of Marquez's life from his birth in Columbia in 1927 up to the period of his literary life in the 1950s. To me, the beauty of the book lies in its vivid portrayal of the rural South American life of the early 20th Century, a portrayal that is very similar to the Africa of that same period. Also captivating is the rich poetry of its storytelling which makes the book a combination of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Marquez comes across as a very committed writer from an early age when he spurned his parents' pleas that he abandon writing for a career in Law. The author could also be frank to a fault, confessing to having caught gonorrhoea several times in his teens from prostitutes in his native land!

Wumi Raji
Antigone by Sophocles - Revising a paper for publication early this year, I found myself returning to this 5th century B.C. Athenian tragedy. It is a play in which two kinds of hubris collide, with Creon defying the gods and Antigone defying the king himself - the result is a tragedy of frightening dimensions. What struck me, however, was the eternal contemporaneity of the work. The play foregrounds the question of the method and strategy of undermining political authoritarianism and tyranny. Two brothers fighting on different sides in a war hack each other to death, and the king of the city comes out to decree that the body of the one fighting against the state must not be buried but rather, should be left in the open for birds and animals to feast upon. Their sister, Antigone, is determined to inter the corpse of her brother. This, in a society which expects women to be totally voiceless, keeping them completely out of matters of state administration. The heroine, to me, is an archetypal feminist and she also stands as a tribute to a heroic act of open confrontation against fascistic and totalitarian tendencies.

Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta (Farafina) - What impresses me most about this novel is the author’s frank and open disposition towards issues of feminist concerns. Before her, most Nigerian women writers have been rather apologetic about this theme. Atta’s indeed is a clear departure from what Emecheta once described as "feminism with a small ‘f’". In Everything Good Will Come, the heroine grows from a naïve, innocent and obedient girl to a woman of great ideological consciousness, articulating how indifference to political misrule affects even members of the privileged class, and insisting on the need for women to overcome the complexes engendered by centuries of marginalization and subjection. Atta demonstrates great courage in dealing with her subject matter, and her greatest achievement probably lies in being so thoroughly ideological even as she presents a credible work of fiction.

Chika Unigwe
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a small novel about a young woman who eventually commits suicide. The writing is gripping and powerful. Every sentence, every word was carefully chosen. A master (mistress?) piece!

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner is a novel about ambition, about the precariousness of success and about the American South. Faulkner never ceases to please; this book, like his others, is a treat.

Next Week: Readers’ Books of 2005.

Published in The Guardian, Sunday 8 January 2006

Saturday, January 07, 2006

alamori, the play

Here are scenes from the play, Alamori, performed at the 7th Lagos Book & Arts Festival. last September.


maison de france - lagos

This is the Maison de France in Lagos, otherwise known as the French Cultural Centre. Information about the centre is now available online.

You can find out about the Alliance Francaise, the language centre within the Maison de France where courses in the French language, bilingual secretarial studies, micro computer training and translation services - are on offer. There is also the Resources Centre which offers library services and visitors can view or borrow documentaries, arts & sciences on VHS, CDROM & DVD. All these, and books, can be booked online.

A video archive of past events is also available. Look out for the Maison de France newsletter - coming out soon.

palongo... with seyi solagbade

Here's a picture I took of Palongo exponent, the musician Seyi Solagbade, at the 7th Lagos Book & Arts Festival last September.

Solagbade heads the new season of events at the French Cultural Centre in Lagos.

The musician started playing music in 1983 and founded his group, Blackface, in 1994. The group's first performance was at African Refugee Day in 1997. His songs include Condom, Mr. Stupid and Black Face - the title track of his CD. Palongo is Solagbade's own musical style, and comes out of the musician's quest for "unique and futuristic" music. The musician describes Palongo as "a dance rhythm with heavy and aggressive rhythmic pattern. It is a concept in 6/8 rhythmic pattern and it emanated from Ghana and other rhythmic percussion of some southern Nigerian States."

The fair-skinned Solagbade gave the reasoning behind his band's name. "Black Face is not talking about my complexion. It is an ideology. I am not talking about my 'white' face. It is the African pride I am talking about." He added that being an African automatically endows even a fair skinned person with a 'black face'.

Seyi Solagbade and the Blackface group will be in action at the French Cultural Centre from tonight, 7th January.

There will be other performances at the same venue on the 14th and 21st of January. All shows start at 7pm

january @ the french cultural centre

Seyi Solagbade (above) is just one highlight of a packed season of events at the Maison de France, Lagos, this January.

Seun Olota & DotCom Band performed on Thursday January 5 - ahead of Solagbade who takes the stage with his Blackface band tonight.

Other January events at the French Cultural Centre:
January 10 - The French Cultural Centre presents 'laureates:
Bayo Adegbe of Modela Couture who won the 2nd Best African Designer of the year at Fima (Festival of International de la Mode Africaine) held in Niamey in December;
Uche James-Iroha who won the Major Awan ELAN d'AFRIQUE at the 6th African Photography Encounter in Bamako, Mali, last November.
Asa, the singer - fresh from a residency in France.

- Adegbe will present 15 models, James-Iroha will exhibit some of his photography and Asa will, well, sing!

January 14 & 15 - Seyi Solagbade and the Blackface.
January 16 - Cine Club showing of the film, Platform / Asterix films on 23 & 30th).
January 19 & 26 - Afro Jazz with Ola Sam Jazzzone & Awambe - time, 7pm.
January 27 - Exhibition and discussion with authors of Nigerian Comics.

those orange coloured pics

If anyone's wondering about the orange tint to my photos of Seyi Solagbade, here's the reason why. At the 7th Lagos Book & Arts Festival (9-11 Sept, 2005) we were all under this huge orange tent, in the grounds of the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. Everything acquired a warm tone of orange under that tent, which wasn't a bad thing.

poetryfilm - january 15

PoetryFilm Screening event - avant-garde PoemFilm shorts.

Featuring a dozen experimental films based on poems, text-based films and films examining language, the first PoetryFilm@Picturehouse showcases today's most imaginative and eclectic works in the cult genre of PoetryFilm. Drinks and discussion in the bar afterwards, followed by live poetry reading.

Curated by Malgorzata Kitowski

Date: Sunday 15th January / Time: 7.45pm / Tickets: £7; £5

Venue: Greenwich Picturehouse
180 Greenwich High Road
London SE10

* 100 yards from Greenwich mainline and DLR stations.

Tel: 0870-755-0065

Further information about PoetryFilm: INFO@POETRYFILM.ORG

Thursday, January 05, 2006

best books of 2005: writers' choices (2)

Compiled by Molara Wood

In the second of our look at the ‘reading year’, author of Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Professor Femi Osofisan discuss some of the books that impressed them in 2005. They are joined by other writers, including: Uche Nduka (author of Heart’s Field), Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu (Zahrah The Windseeker) and Tade Ipadeola (The Rain Fardel).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I enjoyed The Professor’s Daughter, Emily Raboteau’s first novel. I much admired the prose, the fierce intelligence, the way she looks race straight in the eye and yet creates characters that are all fully human; not at all illustrative puppets.

There is a human, humane and almost earnest quality about Ian McEwan’s Saturday that I, irony-weary, loved. McEwan so masterfully handles the elements I most enjoy about fiction: character, pacing, language, emotion, plot, attention to detail; I cared for his characters.

Ike Anya
Stuart- A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters - A sensitive and thought provoking true account of the life of Stuart Shorter, a homeless man on the streets of Cambridge, beginning with his suicide and working its way back to his terrible childhood. It is humorous, moving and challenging with insights as to how a cherubic looking young boy ended up on the streets.

Tropical Fish: Tales Out of Entebbe by Doreen Baingana (University of Massachusetts Press) - Although ostensibly a collection of short stories, Baingana gripped me from the first page to the last with her humorous, beautifully recounted tales of Ugandan sisters growing up, through boarding school and university in Entebbe and Kampala, living under the spectre of AIDS, emigrating to the US and returning home in a soon to be disillusioned hope.

Arrows of Rain by Okey Ndibe (Heinemann) - A searing reminder of what it was like living in the duplicitous madness of the Abacha years, and redolent with the scent, taste and sounds of Lagos and the Bar Beach, although set in the fictional state of Madia.

Patrick Neate’s City of Tiny Lights, tackling questions of race, culture and identity in 21st century London was prophetic, being published only a few weeks before the London bombings and perhaps that heightened its impact on me. He showed a clear understanding of the issues and captured the joyous, diverse energy and contradictions that make London in 2005 such an interesting place to be.

Victor Ehikhamenor
I enjoyed reading Fences, a play by August Wilson - and The Pickup, a novel by Nadine Gordimer. In Fences, Wilson captured the struggle of blacks in America in the late 50s to 60s. The work’s timelessness and the humorous way in which the playwright captured the pain, oppression, pressure and disillusionment - makes it a classic. The symbolism of Fences cannot be undermined… Daily, we either fence people out, or people fence us out of a system that works.

Gordimer’s novel of migration, immigration and emigration hits close to home for me. Many immigrants have similar experience to that of Ibrahim, the protagonist in The Pickup. Many immigrants "pickup" white women to get papers or get "picked up" by white women as a collector’s item. Symbolically, both books have the same ring tone…make the fence higher, so the black man cannot scale it.

Tade Ipadeola
It is a thing of hope to note that in a year in which I read, amongst others, John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold, Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notebooks of Don Rigoberto and Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, my two best books are African!

I had read an excerpt of Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come (Farafina), published in Glendora years earlier. But, read in its entirety - in the writer’s context - the novel surprised me; for it’s fierce intelligence, the sheer humour. To me, it illustrates what the scholar Harry Garuba has consistently referred to as animist realism in African fiction. Set in the age of rogue soldiers, the book affirmed, to me, the enduring value, in any society, of the warrior. Mind you I say ‘the warrior’, not ‘the soldier’. Gender, to which many of the book’s reviewers have turned for a generic tag, is really secondary. Enitan is a warrior and her gender does not even begin to matter. I hope the book inspires life to imitate art. It is really a stupendous work. I do not think a first novel has affected me the way Everything Good Will Come has, except perhaps Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I really believe that we have in Atta a new exemplar in the art of narratives. My one real fear is that she may have done her best work in that one book, it was that good in my estimation. She did it well.

I believe it was the Robert Browning that said: "He that keeps one end in view / makes all things serve." That observation has never been truer for me than in my reading of Kenule Saro-Wiwa’s Compte Rendu of the Nigerian Civil war, On A Darkling Plain. It is a very different book, from a completely different tradition, than Everything Good Will Come. But you can still see certain themes reverberating across: the war; leadership or the lack of it; love under strained skies; the inheritance of contemporary Africans. Saro-Wiwa’s book treats the problem of distributive justice in Nigeria like no one else can. I have wondered why God lays the burden of such acute vision on members of ‘minority’ groups. Saro-Wiwa was Ogoni. I couldnt help but draw parallels between his way of telling his story and, say, Antjie Krog’s way of doing her thing (in Country Of My Skull). Would Krog still be able to do it thus were she not Afrikaneer? Who else but an Ogoni could write On A Darkling Plain?

Uche Nduka
The films of Mike Leigh by Ray Carney and Leonard Quart (Oxford University Press) - is a book squarely focused on the humane, empathetic, unpretentious, and stylistically diverse film work of the British Independent filmmaker. Leigh’s films - beginning with Bleak Moments (1971) right down to Naked (1993) - are deeply topical, emotionally articulate, socially astute, cinematically fluxional. He finds personal, political, philosophical hypocrisies grating and pummels them mercilessly in his work. I like this book because it is the first in-depth critical study of this sometimes feisty, sometimes lyrical director who knows how to instructionally lament and laugh at the complex textures of life.

In My Invented Country: A Memoir by Isabel Allende (Harper Collins), the US-based novelist scans the underbelly and the outer reaches of her native Chile. Her touching exploration of her country is a very knowledgeable, loving and critical exercise. Her memoir makes me want to take the next flight to Chile. A country blessed with brilliant, passionate citizens that seem to verge on the anarchic, Chile reminds me a lot of Nigeria, my own cataclysmic country. With humour, she details the socially hilarious mores of her countrymen and women - their love lives, religious beliefs, political situation, ideals, pride, and disorder.

Allende’s memoir is creatively and robustly penned. Realism and magic mingle on the pages just like in her novels. I like the book particularly because of the way her invocations of her extended family embrace the affectionate and the exasperating. She is not out to whitewash her origins. Additionally, her unapologetic feminism is highly commendable. Read this book and frolic in it. It is a great read.

Wole Oguntokun
This House Has Fallen - Nigeria in Crisis by Karl Maier (Penguin Books) caught my attention because it seemed to be a continuation of Kole Omotosho’s excellent docu-fiction (my term) on Nigeria, Just before Dawn. I haven’t seen a title that better describes the Nigerian situation than Maier’s, and the contents for the most part, truly (and painfully) document the way our country’s affairs appear to the unbiased eye.

Olodumare - God in Yoruba Belief by E. Bolaji Idowu (Longman, First published, 1962) has details on deities, religions and moral values that have broadened my mind. I’ve always wanted insight into ancient Yoruba culture and customs, and this is one of the richest I have had the privilege of owning.

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
Published posthumously, Lemona’s Tale is Ken Saro-Wiwa’s last novel. Narrated by a woman on Death Row for a crime she didn’t commit, the novel is very short and equally sweet, and hit me like a punch in the stomach. It’s one of the few Nigerian novels written by a man that feels genuinely sympathetic and understanding of the plight of Nigerian women.

My sister and I read I Saw The Sky Catch Fire by T. Obinkaram Echewa while we were in Nigeria last March. It is one of the greatest pieces of story weaving I’ve read in a long time. It addresses a historical event that I’ve wanted to see novelized for a long time - the Igbo Women’s War of 1929. The novel also has excellent insight into the fight and fire inherent in the Nigerian woman’s heart. An excellent novel.

Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta is the story of two girls who grow into women in Lagos in the 70s, 80s and 90s. One character is sheltered and the other needs some sheltering. Lyrically written, this novel is honest, unafraid and unapologetic, which is what I love in a good novel. It shows the durability and resilience of Nigerian women today. A really strong first novel.

Only African American science fiction legend, Octavia Butler could have completely reinvigorated the overdone ‘vampire novel’. Fledgling (Seven Stories Press) is narrated by and about Shori, a 53 year old vampire who looks like a ten years old black girl. She’s lost her memory and someone is trying to kill her. The vampires in this novel are not your usual bloodsucking senseless monsters but they will scare you (just not how you think). As with all of Butler’s novels, Fledgling will leave you considering things you once assumed. ..

Femi Osofisan
I've been thinking, and finally, I've decided that my best books for the year will have to be: Toyin Falola’s A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt (University of Michigan Press), and Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come.

Falola’s book knocks me out for two reasons: first, its language, where he’s added new ‘salt’ to the use of Yoruba proverbs; and secondly, the story it tells, of the turbulent political life of Ibadan, in the years precisely when I have taken residence in the city. It is Falola’s autobiography, the early part of his life, but since we are contemporaries, you will understand why therefore, in a sense, it reads also like my own story, about a life I know so intimately, and a city and characters who are part of the drama of my own life. I am looking forward eagerly to the sequel, since the story is not ended yet!

As for Sefi Atta, she is obviously an extremely talented story teller, and knows how to keep you fascinated from page to page. It is also the Lagos that I know, and the events and stories are familiar. I am impressed that, even though the book is primarily about the female condition in our society, and she comes down hard on the men, she also manages to weave in quite a lot of the political stuff. Cleverly, without sounding overtly didactic, she exposes the nation’s ills: the inefficient infrastructure, the incompetent elite, the corrupt political leadership, and the shoddy, insecure life we all lead behind our barricaded houses. I feel that this fierce denunciation of our traditions and patriarchal cruelties is one-sided. Like in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, fathers come out very badly, and all the men are obviously devils. I am frankly taken aback, I’d not realized that this is what we have created our women to be. Still, I salute her eloquence and incredible power of narration. I only hope that, in the next book, she will be more happy - and perhaps more forgiving.

Readers’ 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 in The Guardian - Sunday 1 January, 2006