Tag Archives: African literature

ARC Review #4 – Aya of Yop City, Abouet

 

ayayop Country: Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa

Author: Marguerite Abouet (& Clement Oubrerie)

Review: This is the continuation of the story started in Aya, about the three friends from Youpougon, the working-class neighbourhood of Côte d’Ivoire of the 1970s, three fairly ordinary young women in a working class neighbourhood (Youpougon, in Abidjan), and their teenage lives. The first book ends with the birth of Aya’s friend Adjoua’s son, who’s supposed to be fathered by a rich boy, to whom Adjoua’s engaged to be married. The second book opens with the picture of the child, who is in fact the image of his real father — a goodlooking goodfornothing by the name of Mamadou. The stories pick up and follow the lives of the girls, meandering through various byways, including Aya’s visit with her father to his work in another village, and Bintou’s affair with an apparently rich man. And yet nothing’s as good as it seems.

In fact, the theme of this book could be the faithlessness of men. Almost every man in the book is flawed, and the women are either their victims or their saviours. It’s a lighthearted look at life in Youpougon, and well worth the money I paid for it, but when all is said and done there are enough clichés for the African/Caribbean woman to fill a book.

Comment: I read this book just in case — in case I couldn’t get through all of the African books I’d aimed to, and I’m glad I did so. That takes me to four of the six I aimed for. I have to say: Ngugi has swamped me, and I’m not going to finish his book, or the Challenge, by 2009. 

Abouet’s work, though, is well worth following.

ARC Review #3 – Aya, Abouet

Country: Ivory Coast Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa

Author: Marguerite Abouet (& Clement Oubrerie)

Review: Yes, yes, another coming of age novel. But I had to think about this one, because (a) it’s not All About Me, and (b) it’s a graphic novel. It’s about three young women in the Ivory Coast Côte d’Ivoire of the 1970s, three fairly ordinary young women in a working class neighbourhood (Yopougon), who are having the usual teenage girl-issues, like school and boys and what to do with what’s going on between their legs. It’s called Aya, and that’s the main character — or rather the narrator — but as Aya’s a pretty dull person really (at least at this point in her life — she’s studying too hard to generate any real drama in her life) the story really focusses on the actions of her two friends Bintou and Adjoua.

Comment: All the reviews about this book, as well as the preface, make a point of talking about the ordinariness of the story, the lack of violence and abjectness in the background, the total unAfricanness of the story (because nobody dies, no government topples, and nobody starves). To do the same thing would justify that stance and underline the idea that what happens in Africa must be very very bad. Everyone makes the point of saying that Ivory Coast Côte d’Ivoire was an exemplary African nation in the 1970s, etc, etc, rather the way Alexander McCall Smith keeps reminding us that Botswana is an exemplary African nation in the 2000s. It’s the postcolonial version of the Dark Continent myth. I don’t buy it, so I won’t say it. But for people expecting fireworks and drama in this graphic novel, and who approach it the way they might approach, say, Speigelman’s Maus, forget it. Think Archie, Betty and Veronica — only all grown up.

ARC Review #2 – Purple Hibiscus, Adichie

Country:  Nigeria, West Africa

Author:  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Review:  Perhaps it’s typical of novels from the African and Caribbean diaspora, but I find often that authors’ first novels are coming-of-age stories.   (It’s one of the things that’s turned me off reading novels from my own region, and equally, what’s stopped me writing The Big One.)  But that’s an aside; I’m here to talk about Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus.

So all right, it’s a coming-of-age story.  But it didn’t turn me off!  On the contrary, it’s so well done, so carefully drawn, so non-solipsistic that it won me over.

The narrator is a fourteen-year-old girl whose father is a Big Man in her community — owner of a local factory, publisher of the only newspaper that dares to be critical of the government, fierce Roman Catholic convert, pillar of the community, a local hero who (like Achebe’s Okonkwo) cannot bend but must break, or be broken, instead.  The father is a domestic tyrant who teaches his lessons with pain, who punishes his family with specific physical torments, and who has no tolerance for anything other than the way he has chosen for himself.  He is distanced from his own father, who has refused to abandon his traditions, and has an uneasy relationship with his sister, who has made peace with both the old way and the new, and is able to chart a specifically African course, balancing her life between the traditional and the contemporary, and finding a very Nigerian interpretation of Christianity.  The narrator and her brother live sheltered lives until they go to visit this aunt, a poor professor in a university town, and their experiences with her and her family form the catalyst that brings the story to its turning point.

Adichie’s style is spare and clean (is this a 21st century phenomenon?), and deceptively simple.  It’s in keeping, in its female, 21st century way, with the trend Achebe set with Things Fall Apart, limpid language revealing subtext.  And the subtext is rich:  domestic abuse, the challenges of living in independent Nigeria, the challenges of remaining uncorrupted, the poverty and marginalization of intellectuals, the casual violence of everyday life.  From the fervent church services and the generosity of the father to the poor to the scar on Kevin-the-chauffeur’s neck and the polishing of the mother’s figurines, the gulf between the public persona and the private life is too large to be crossed, until.

Comments:  I ran across Adichie on Zoetrope and am glad I finally read her book.  I’d read more by her for sure.

Update on Africa Reading Challenge

No, I haven’t forgotten it.  Have you?

Here’s my update.  I took books, as I said, to Guyana to read.  That was optimistic; I didn’t get the chance while on the ground, though I did read small bits of Purple Hibiscus in the bath once or twice.  I also didn’t get the chance to attend Karen King-Aribisala’s reading, much to my regret, as I know Karen personally, having attending the 1992 Caribbean Writer’s Workshop with her (and Edwidge Danticat and Garfield Ellis and Geoffrey Philp — time, hey, for me to get my behind published like my peers, huh?) Karen, if you ever chance to read this, please please accept my apologies, and start saving — CARIFESTA’s here in The Bahamas next time.

I will be posting reviews — I finished two more books — over the next week or so.

Cheers.

ARC Review #1 – Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, (Lalami)

Country:  Morocco, North Africa

Author:  Laila Lalami

Review:  This is a novel/collection of related short stories, and in this way reminds me of Naipaul’s Miguel Street. The stories are about four Moroccans who take the risk of crossing the narrow straits between Morocco and Spain, and are separated into two main sections: “Before” and “After”. The book grew on me; to be honest, I was not hooked by the prologue until I’d read the whole thing. By the end, though, I was sorry to finish the book.

Lalami’s style is clean and spare, and her four characters rise off the page and we care. Each of the characters gets two full stories, a “Before” story and an “After” story, and the prologue tells the climax — the moment when they cross the straits and succeed, or fail, to make it to another life. One of the characters — a man with an English degree, a voracious reader of American literature — gets three; it’s his POV in the prologue. By the end, the short stories lock together in a single whole, and the novel is there — its protagonist is The Immigrant, and its resolution is variable.

There were a couple of bits that stand out. One of my favourite stories in the collection, the first one after the prologue, “The Fanatic”, is told from the POV of a character who never recurs. He sees, and affects the life of, one of the immigrants, someone whose story is told in the second part of the book. I suspect that it’s a weakness, especially if the stories form a novel, but on its own it’s very fine. Of course it is. It was shortlisted for the Caine Prize — the African Booker.

I imagine that for others part of the allure of this collection is the fact that it’s rooted in Islam, which is the religion du jour for many Western literati, and that the characters do not conform to the expected stereotypes. Only one of them is particularly religious; the rest behave remarkably like people (warning: sarcasm intended).

Comment: I’ve not read any North African literature proper, other than Camus, which masquerades as French literature, and Gide, who’s an expatriate anyway. I keep meaning to read Mahfouz but haven’t managed yet. My North African exposure is narrow. Lalami’s a welcome change from that.

I’ve been following her work for some time now.  I came across her blog, oh, sometime back in 2005 maybe, before Hope was published, and have often intended to read the book. I’m not disappointed I finally did.

Follow-up to African Reading Challenge

The fate of migrants is the same – Mediterranean, Atlantic Ocean, does it matter?

Laila Lalami linked to this photo-essay taken in Italy of North African migrants.

The similarities between the essay and what we see here with Haitian migrants are striking.

I’ve been carrying around Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits for days now, trying to make time for it.  I will keep you posted.

My Africa Reading List

If I take part, that is.

What’s under my belt is pretty male and middle-century, and so I thought I’d branch out with some female voices and writing from more recent times

  • Adichie (Nigeria) – Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun
  • Emecheta (Nigeria) – The Joys of Motherhood
  • Ngugi (Kenya) – Wizard of the Crow
  • Baingana (Uganda) – Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe
  • Lalami (Morocco) – Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
  • Gourevitch (Rwanda) – We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with our Families
  • Ilibagiza (Rwanda) – Left to Tell

Coming Late to the Party

And not knowing whether I will take part because I can barely keep up, but:

There’s a reading challenge going on this year that I’d like to alert people to, just in case.

It’s the Africa Reading Challenge:

Participants commit to read – in the course of 2008 – six books that either were written by African writers, take place in Africa, or deal significantly with Africans and African issues.  (Read more if you like!)

You can read whatever you want, but of the six books, I recommend a mixture of genres. For example, you might select books from each of the following:

  1. Fiction (novels, short stories, poetry, drama)
  2. Memoir / autobiography
  3. History and current events

I also recommend reading books from at least 3 different countries.  The challenge is for 2008, but if you feel like jumping in now: karibu sana!

There’s help for the challenge.  For example, there’s this list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century, compiled by a committee selected by the Zimbabwe Book Fair and published on the web by Columbia University Libraries.

And here’s the list put together by the challenger.

Here’s my own list of books which I’ve read by Africans/about Africa.  It’s partial because of my memory, and you’ll notice it’s pretty old (mostly mid-20th century), and it includes only those books I finished (there are several, like Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, Ngugi’s Petals of Blood and Matagari and Okri’s The Famished Road that I started but didn’t finish).  Some of them I know pretty well, others not so well.  Some I read in the original French, but can’t remember the name anymore.  Several are not here, because I have to go dig them out to remember them. But if they are here, be sure they stuck with me.

  • Achebe, Things Fall Apart, A Man of the People, Morning Yet on Creation Day
  • Armah, The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born
  • Sembene, Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood)
  • Oyono, Houseboy
  • Soyinka, Death and the King’s Horseman, The Lion of God, The Bacchae of Euripides*
  • Ngugi, A Grain of Wheat, Decolonizing the Mind
  • Fugard, Master Harold and the Boys, Siswe Bansi is Dead
  • Head, A Question of Power
  • Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

*Edited to get Soyinka’s play title right – it’s the Bacchae, not the Bacchus of Euripides

And of course one of the most influential books about Africa (and the whole colonial world, for that matter):

  • Conrad, Heart of Darkness

It’s time, I think, to refresh my reading list anyway.  If I decide to participate (some things will help me decide, like, oh, CARIFESTA) I will do so here.

Till then, I offer the challenge to you all.

EDIT: Here’s a bonus to the challenge – Siphoning Off A Few Thoughts’ link to Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How To Write About Africa” in Granta 92.

My favourite bit:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

There’s a whole lot more.