What’s on the Africanist’s Shelf: Series II

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom. Like art.”

-Toni Morrison

With the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, I thought the above quote does justice to the importance of literature–and indeed all forms of art–in keeping our spirits lifted. Keeping this in mind, I hope this long overdue post can offer some gems to help you pass mandated quarantines. I will admit that this selection is less geographically diverse than the first post in this series since every author under review is of West African descent, and less categorically diverse as these books are mostly made up of realist elements. Though, while you may be able to place their genres into nicely fitted boxes, it is impossible to do the same with their themes. Through different forms, elements, and tones each of these books cover issues pertinent to the post-colonial African/Afropolitan experience from migration to resource extraction to militancy and failed states.

Most of these books can be found in bookstores across Africa and several countries in the West, though this may be the one time I recommend getting an electronic copy. I hope you have as much pleasure bonding with these as I did. Check out my BookShop for help finding some of these.

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Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasie: You may know her for popularizing the use of the term Afropolitan in her essay “Bye Bye Babar” or her attempt at dismantling the limit of the African identity with her Ted Talk “Don’t Ask me Where I’m from, Ask Where I’m a Local” or for her Granta-published short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls“. This novel only adds more luster to the wonder that is Selasie. It includes everything you’d expect from her: emphasis on the reach and breadth of identity, breathtaking lyricism, nuggets of soulful philosophy, complete defiance of time and boundaries with a plot gliding from Lagos to Accra to London to Boston to New York and scenes transcending all the spaces in between. Not enough words exist to do justice to Selasie’s writing so I recommend you check this out for yourself!

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: It is no wonder that this debut from the Cameroonian author received several accolades. The novel features an interplay between the families of a Cameroonian driver and his employer, an executive at Lehman Brothers at the eve of its collapse. As the global economy tilts towards another recession, Mbue’s writing is particularly timely. We can only wonder if, again, bailouts will only apply to managers and Wall Street execs or the small businesses and laid-off or furloughed employees collapsing under pressure of mandated quarantines. And with increasing attack on immigration, Mbue probes into the fallacy of the American Dream. We cannot expect to answer these questions anytime soon. Her second novel, How Beautiful We Were, scheduled to be released this summer, takes on another timeless issue: resource extraction in the Global South.

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma: My first contact with Obioma’s writing was from his debut novel The Fishermen and one of the first things I noticed was the grotesqueness with which he writes. There is something near oxymoronic about the way he writes about emotions like love and strife and courage without romanticizing local color so that love dwells amidst bird droppings and courage amidst refuse dumps. The more recent novel is an Odyssey-like story coupled with rather nuanced class configurations and narrated through the protagonist’s chi – an Igbo cosmologic guardian spirit. This technique opens up questions like what interpretation looks like in a 21st century where our personal spirits intercede on our behalf; how our conscience fares in the face of our actions; how, in particular, African guardian spirits view the deviations from our culture and the willingness with which we take on the oppressor’s ways. It also captures the urge to protect and to feel protected, and the way grief from those who’ve continuously been deprived forms an “orchestra of minorities”. Chigozie Obioma is often referred to as the young Achebe and with the proverbial wisdoms that this novel carries, the title is rather fitting.

Onaedo the Blacksmith’s Daughter by Ngozi Achebe: Achebe’s legacy lives on through more than one author in this selection, but unlike Obioma, Ngozi Achebe is actually a blood relative! While it is not unreasonable to expect Achebe to live in the shadow of her late uncle, she goes beyond that by daring to create her own legacy with this debut. This heartfelt novel begins when an impending visit from the protagonist’s father who had long abandoned his family in the United States to fight in the Biafra war coincides with her discovery of narratives from an African slave shipped to Brazil. We are soon transported to another story of separations, betrayals, and soon forgotten loves. This is a must read for anyone who enjoyed Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (featured in the previous post in this series) or anyone who enjoys good literature regardless of its genre.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo: The protagonist is a recently married Nigerian woman struggling under several of the plights of motherhood: postpartum depression, familial pressures, child-loss, you name it. The plot is a take on Yoruba folklore around Abiku (translated literally as “born to die”) well versed in the poetry of Wole Soyinka and JP Clark. Adebayo echoes the perspective of the latter poet by focusing on the mother, for whom rebirth becomes even more traumatic than death, and merges it with a feminist lens that criticizes all the dangers of Nigerian patriarchy on motherhood, such as the tradition of looking at a new wive’s stomach before her face or the dangerous assumption that women are always to blame for infertility. Highlighting the fragility of family ties, this tearjerker plays along similar themes as another amazing feminist Nigerian novel, Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.

Everyday is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Though some aspects of it are fictionalized, this book reads as a travel diary based on the author’s visit to “contemporary” Lagos. Through solemn philosophizing and a lacing of exquisite photos, Cole shows the city in its most unapologetic form: awash with physical and cultural dilapidation, corruption, mob street justice, even more corruption, and death, mostly unexplainable and easily avoidable. Yet  there is something hopeful spurring from citizens who have privatized services the government fails at providing, who despite the slow lethargic, death that corruption and struggle bring have insisted on keeping their minds alive and their spirits awake. No one is spared in Teju Cole’s lashing critique of the rather oxymoronic “trio of fame” that Nigerians use to cope: religion, corruption and happiness, and his metaphor of the post-colonial Nigerian state as a masquerade. Along with being a skilled novelist, Teju Cole is also a brilliant essayist so be sure to check out other genres of his work!

Oil On Water by Helon Habila: When the wife of an expatriate oil worker is kidnapped by militants, an aspiring journalist and his washed up mentor set out to find her, and to uncover the continuing battle between the Nigerian military and local activists. This story, which spans only a few weeks, contains perfectly rounded characters: red-eyed militants, disgruntled police officers, opportunists, revolutionaries, drunk on a range of emotions from power-lust to vengeance to retribution. The plot is equally as complex in the way it couples the traditional flow from conflict to climax to resolution with all the antics of an adventure tale (heart-wrenching chases! unlikely villains! fleeting romances!). A journalist by training, Habila echoes the need for art to be political. Through every page, every paragraph, every sentence even, Habila’s words embody the power of truth, the might of the pen over the sword.

A Month and a Day and Letters by Ken Saro-Wiwa: Before diving into this review, it is worth providing some context for those not as familiar with the author. Ken Saro-Wiwa was an Ogoni writer and environmental activist, and one of the founders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) who protested Shell BP’s unethical extraction and devastation of Ogoni-land and much of the Niger Delta. When a group of Ogoni elders are murdered by a mob, the Abacha regime, in its patron-client relationship with oil multinationals, grasped this opportunity to cease Saro-Wiwa’s interruption of continued accumulation in the region.

This rich collection contains the diary from the month and day during which he was detained, letters sent and received in his final days, words from figures around the world including Ben Okri and Nelson Mandela, a brilliant foreword by Wole Soyinka, posthumous letters from his family, the statement he was prevented from reading to the military-appointed tribunal that sentenced him and eight other MOSOP members to death by hanging, and his famous last words, “Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues”. This book and its author have served as inspiration for several artists and activists, including myself, who believe that literature in a critical situation cannot be divorced from politics.

May his words provide solace to us in these, and other, difficult situations:

“Indeed, literature must serve society by steeping itself in politics, by intervention, and writers must not merely write to amuse or to take a bemused critical look at society. They must play an interventionist role”.

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