Tuesday, January 10, 2006

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


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