African Literary Digest: 14 Must-Reads from February, 2017
March 08, 2017
Every month, we compile a list of reads from around the internet that we find illuminating. For January, we chose eight pieces. For February, we have fourteen items. They include non-fiction, fiction, essays, speeches, and even tweets. While numbered, this list is unranked.
1. “Since Everything Was Suddening into a Hurricane” | By Binyavanaga Wainaina | Granta | Non-fiction
With its reinventive use of punctuation and grammar and capitalisation and paragraphing, Binyavanga’s new essay is groundbreaking, period. From his detailing of his tortuous experience with stroke to his vulnerability when face-to-face with his father in Nairobi, to his tender hope for his father’s acceptance of his lover, Binyavanga’s fragmented prose, Ainehi Edoro writes, “pushes the essay teasingly close to poetry…so the flow of sentences are often interrupted by heavy poetic imagery or sudden shifts in subject matter.” There is enough unconventional syntax and punctuation:
where I soft slidingly deny to listen or see, all while nodding grinning
to charts and chat and measurements, still refusing to. be. agreeing. to. any. such.
And more: “Classes they are nearly done for the term and I will finish and go home to Nairobi. My brain it is humming like quiet and indivisible.” And: “I am feeling so almost.” Binyavanga, Ainehi explains, “freely creates new words by mixing adjectives, blending nouns, transforming nouns into verbs, and vice versa.” Shortly after its publication, the essay generated a conversation on literary experimentation versus bad writing.
2. “Memo to Poets” | By Kwame Dawes | Twitter | Writing Tips
In the space of one month, from February 6 to March 7, Kwame Dawes has dished out ten writing tips for poets on twitter. Currently at No 10, the tweets are essentially the do’s and don’t’s of writing poetry. “The moon is always ‘distant,’” reads Number 2. “It’s not like we are going to forget.” Number 4 is something to be wary of: “Only one poem about writing poems a year. They are all the same poem written when we have nothing to say.” And Number 6 is a warning: “Prose poems: they might be double-agents, be on the alert.” Numbers 9 and 10 are advice all writers, not just poets, must consider: “Metaphors are hams, divas; they hate to share the limelight and too many in a room can be blinding,” and “A simile in a simile in a simile in a simile is a brilliant parlor trick, yes, but it’s not great for poems.” The “Memo” is ongoing and can be seen on Dawes’ twitter feed.
3. “Me and My Afro”| By Imbolo Mbue | The Guardian UK | Essay
The hair-centricity of Imbolo Mbue’s essay is a starting point for Cameroun’s intense Anglophone-minority-in-a-Francophone-country political climate, but her writing is introspective enough for it to be as much about her hair as it is about her country’s politics. “It’s been short, long, straight and punky,” she writes, “reflecting the twists and turns of my life and my homeland, Cameroun.” It begins this way: “In the summer of 2002, I walked into a hair salon in New Jersey and asked a stylist to cut off all my hair. I was done having hair. Enough with the pain of straightening it with a chemical that scalded parts of my scalp and left others in blisters. Enough with the discomfort of braiding it—eight hours of tugging and wincing followed by painkillers to ease the soreness…. Free me from this burden, I told the stylist.” In a sharp reprimand of history, she locates her struggles in her country’s: “I was perhaps seven years old when I realised I was Anglophone, and therefore a member of my country’s linguistic minority…. It was only when I was a preteen…that I began to comprehend the challenges of being English-speaking in a predominantly French-speaking country. How did our country come to be so divided? Colonialism: how else?” Accompanied by beautiful photographs of her taken by Flora Hanitijo, the piece is an example of how interwoven the personal and the political can become. Mbue’s essayistic engagement with her afro is, in Ainehi Edoro’s words, an “act of the utmost authorial cuteness.”
4. “Out of Europe: Traveling with the Caine Prize in Germany”| By Rotimi Babatunde | Caineprize.com | Non-fiction
Rotimi Babatunde’s remarkable piece details his travel to Germany through Turkey for a series of workshops centered around his 2012 Caine Prize-winning story “Bombay’s Republic.” Delivered in the second-person, in the sharp, observant prose we have come to associate with his writing, Babatunde’s command of history and his choice of references elevate this from an insightful travel piece to a searing revisitation of historical ironies. His “Bombay’s Republic” is set during WWII and several German cultural institutions organized a series of workshops centered on the story. “Out of Europe comes something new, to tweak the motto of the Caine Prize,” he writes of this development. “It is a valid perspective,” he tells his workshop audience, “to see the Second World War as a case of Germany trying to do to Europe what Europe, including Germany, had been doing to people in Africa and elsewhere for many centuries before the war.”
5. “Galina” | By Angela Ajayi | Fifth Wednesday Journal | Fiction
Angela Ajayi’s debut story immerses us in a Ukrainian woman’s relationship with her mother, a relationship haunted primarily by her fear of losing her, but also by her fear of other things she has lost. Those fears are touchingly rendered. The woman, Galina, “had come undone in a way that couldn’t be measured,” and “if she was losing her mind, she was not fully aware of the symptoms.” Her prose is filled with strong imagery, a lot of birds, fruits and vegetation. When lines like “The swallow on the tree lowered its short neck and pecked at a cherry, digging into the red flesh and exposing the brown pit” are juxtaposed with “The sound she emitted was not the usual hoarse-sounding one—it was like she had just whistled a happy tune” in a paragraph that ends with “A whiff of raw garlic hit Galina’s nose,” one realizes how it is the kind of story that demands engagement with all the senses—seeing, hearing, smelling. It was published last year but is back on our radar after winning a 2017 PEN/ Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.
6. “We Must Take Back Our Stories and Reverse the Gaze” | By Aminatta Forna | The Guardian UK | Essay
This excerpt from Aminatta Forna’s keynote speech at an African Studies Association event covers a major issue that has bedeviled not only Africans but other colonized peoples: the ownership of one’s story. Connecting the resilience theories of the PTSD expert Boris Cyrulnik to storytelling, she underlines how “writers of African heritage must resist the attempts of others to define us and our history.” She outlines the meaning that “writing Africans into a full existence” offered Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Using earlier complaints by the Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin—against British rewriting of school syllabi—and the Vietnamese writer Viet Thanh Nguyen—against Hollywood retelling of the Vietnam war—she explains how “the wilful amnesia of a dominant culture that would rather forget its historical transgressions must be challenged.” “Each generation of writers of African heritage builds on the foundations of the generation that went before,” she states, placing in this tradition of reclamation Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How To Write about Africa” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” as well as her own novel The Memory of Love in which she deliberately creates a Sierra Leonean character through whose eyes “we see the country, its past and its secrets, the nuances to which Adrian”—her British character—“is not privy.” It is yet another wake-up call.
7. Love Stories from Africa | Edited by Nonso Anyanwu | Brittle Paper| Anthology
After editing 2016’s Gossamer: Valentine Stories, with an introduction by Toni Kan, the Kano-based writer Nonso Anyanwu stepped up his reach with Love Stories from Africa, this mega-dossier of love fiction from across the continent introduced by Helon Habila. Dedicated to the memories of Buchi Emecheta and Miebi Ifedigbo—wife of the poet Nze Sylva Ifedigbo—it features a spatter of remarkable voices: Newtown Literary prose editor and Lethe Press’ Best Gay Stories editor Joe Okonkwo whose debut novel Jazz Moon we covered in an interview last year; 2016 Miles Morland and Pushcart Prize nominee, Nyanza Literary Prize winner, and Enkare Review editor Troy Onyango; 2016 Writivism Short Story Prize winner Acan Innocent Immaculate; Enkare Review editor Carey Baraka; Praxis co-founder Jennifer Chinenye Emelife; Saraba Manuscript Prize for Fiction shortlistee Hajara Hussaini Ashara; Lunas Review editor Andanja Wobanda; Literature Africa Foundation founder Wairimu Mwangi; Dwartonline editor Chukwuebuka Ibeh; and M.V. Sematlane whose “Lesotho Is Like Stepping into a Frosty Fairytale” is one of the most-viewed stories on Brittle Paper.
8. “A Modern Marriage” | By Grace Oluseyi | Boston Review | Fiction
Grace Oluseyi’s debut short story is a neat stitch of an unlikely romance between a woman, Anu, and a lecturer, James Adeola Adebisi. After the awkwardness of their beginning, things move well until Anu’s friend calls from Nigeria to tell her that her intended husband is already married and is only using her to obtain a visa. Anu is a woman aware of her intellectual and physical limitations: she “wasn’t smart” and is “over thirty, badly dressed, too thin, too broad-shouldered, and still possessed the oily, spotted skin of an afflicted teenager.” He is “tall, broad-shouldered” and “listens to William Alwyn while writing papers and John Coltrane while grading them.” It doesn’t escape her that they are mismatched: “It wasn’t that he was attracted to her. On the contrary, Anu knew that the man found her repulsive.” It was published last year, selected by Junot Diaz, but recently won a 2017 PEN/ Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.
9. “How It Ends”| By Troy Onyango | The Magunga | Non-fiction
Troy Onyango’s piece on The Magunga is a behavioural study of undeniable, assured beauty. The eight-part narration is non-linear, in this order: “VIII,” “IV,” “III,” “V,” “I,” “VII,” “II,” and “VI.” Its structure—including a depiction of a WhatsApp conversation—is like poetry and is an efficient hook. The story unveils itself subtly, sometimes in staccato prose: “You stand there and rehearse your life (for the day). The smile. The hug. The walk. Keep. Your. Head. Up.” Most of the sentences that are not brief are irresistible: “A slender man, of Somali descent, rushes past me and his scent is the blood boiling in my head beckoning to sit him down at the makeshift table in Kilimanjaro Restaurant and ask him what about Nairobi appeals to him.” There is a strong appeal to the sense of smell: “The scent lingers, and with it there is a residual warmth welling up inside me that makes me want to scream and tell everyone rushing past me, ‘I am alive!’” and “The girl seated next to me smells of Harpic.” The “lonely, alone” narrator craves to recollect their place in their own world: “Your mother didn’t raise this broke porcelain vase with duct tape and paper glue holding the fragments together. She did her job.” And is riddled by doubt: “A certain grip that one has on reality starts to slip, and the edges become blurred; just enough for you to see your sanity (personified) trundle off without looking back.” The WhatsApp dialogue will nail you:
“Are you in love?”
“Tell me about her/him/it.”
“I don’t think myself capable of loving another.”
“Do you have a person who has become a habit for you?”
A brief piece of powerful contemplation.
10. “Squad” | By Linda Musita |Enkare Review| Fiction
In “Squad,” Linda Musita flexes as her key strength something not so easy to master: dialogue. The story is all dialogue, a conversation (read: gossip) between two female acquaintances about their other female acquaintances whose behaviour towards other women are pretentious, a discussion that briefly uses as metaphor the rising Kenyan artist Boniface Maina’s abstract expressionist, surrealist paintings. The angst of the two characters—who appear to not even care about each other and are willing to accuse each other of the things they criticize in other women—is directed at their lip-service feminist acquaintances who they have names for: Squeegee, Menu Girl, Hot Lip, Afro, Braids, and “the one with the bugger.” There’s even enough for the guys: Mr. Penis Mistake, C List matafaka. “Friend is a bad word used by small shits,” one says. Of another woman in “the gang” the discussion goes thus: “I respected her pseudo-feminist outrage until I discovered she is anti-me and anti-every-other-woman-on-blue-earth.” Their discussion is often funny, with one often saying, in order to lure out more gossip, “Tell me or shut up.” Later she asks, “What type of friendship was that?” and the other woman replies, “Something like what I have with you.” In African literary circles, the feminist renaissance has offered us a slew of killer-phrases, most times for fake feminists. Aside the general “performing pregnancy,” Adichie came up with “Feminism Lite”; in this story, Linda Musita debuts “The Femioso”—a feminist mafia of sorts that gets to decide who actually is or isn’t feminist—and “Cunt Psychosis”—women who “scream for women’s rights and…separately they turn on each other.” The story’s accompanying interview is as insightful.
11. “Natural Disasters”| By Koye Oyedeji | Virginia Quarterly Review | Fiction
Koye Oyedeji’s tale of a vengeful husband, Muyiwa, who tracks down his wife’s new flame and attacks him only to be hunted by the police is told in the second-person and in mostly narration, with sparse dialogue. Going through his wife’s Google search history, we are peppered with his wife’s funny curiosity as regards her new flame as well as her dedication to getting rid of Muyiwa: “Sunday 24th January 6:08 p.m.—How to make love to an Aquarius man. Thursday 28th January 11:09 p.m. was one of your least favorites—When it would be a good time to divorce a Green Card holder but ensure that they got their stay in the US?” Out of the simple prose often sprouts beauties: “Because you are sure you had injured something back then, pressed your prosaic concerns onto her at a time in her life where she felt there ought to have been poetry,” “Your mother is made of proverbs and aphorisms instead of flesh and blood.” And there are references to J.D. Salinger and his A Perfect Day for Bananafish as well as William Ernest Henley’s much-cited poem “Invictus” and the Lord of the Rings films.
12. “Abdul Adan’s Long Walk from El Wak to Hallowed Literary Halls”| By Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group | Profile
Kenya’s Nation Media Group profiled Miles Morland Scholar Abdul Adan. The piece, written by Thomas Rajula, is an inspiring story of a child prodigy who became a taxi driver who became an award-winning writer. The 2016 Caine Prize-shortlistee first became published as a primary school child. “His father paid a local with a big printer to publish the book, A Trip to the Countryside…. His cousin, Ibrahim Adan, who had a degree in literature edited it and his father sold this book from the counter of his general hardware shop.” As an adult, he moved to the US and became a taxi-driver before his first short story came out in 2010. His Miles Morland Scholarship novel will “revolve around the narrator who has been deported from the US…he suffers from an obsession of analyzing people. They include a girl from Seattle who he thinks is too airy and forgettable, a dead poet from Kazakhstan whose suicide note the narrator comes across in a journal, and a radical extremist who applies lubricants on his hostages before executing them.”
13. “Lives of Trailer Drivers”| By Socrates Mbamalu | Adda | Non-fiction
With trailer drivers, Socrates Mbamalu travelled from Nigeria’s West to its North and southwards again to its Middle Belt, and the result is this insightful illustration of “a job of survival” whose hazards crowd out its benefits. “Once, when he had parked in Benin for the night, in 2014, he saw an oil tanker and gas tanker speeding. They didn’t see an oncoming vehicle. The explosion…was inevitable. Other cars rammed into the ball of fire.” There is a resoluteness that their work demands: “Friday doesn’t stop for the police, he speeds past them as if daring them to stand in his way. The fear of a trailer is the beginning of respect for one’s life.” And jarring frustration: “‘Imagine salary of 45,000 naira,’” one complains. “‘If tyre burst, they deduct from the salary.’ A tyre costs 40,000 naira.” The drivers have different stories: “Isa…he stopped schooling at JSS3 due to lack of funds and started working as a trailer driver”; “Eze, he tells me he is married. Isa as well…The only time they visit home is if they pass through the places they live on their way to delivering the goods”; “Friday…his parents wanted him to go to school but he refused.” “Listening to Eze,” Socrates surmises, “I think patience is the major tool of this job, more than driving skill.” We look forward to the publication of Socrates’ Saraba Non-fiction Manuscript Prize-winning The Kenyan Boy later this year.
14. “Where Were the Nigerian Writers at the Nigerian Writers Awards Ceremony?” | By Jennifer Emelife | Olisa.tv| Opinion
When the Nigerian Writers Awards released its list of “The 100 Most Influential Nigerian Writers under 40,” a mis-titled compilation that includes the rapper Olamide and the blogger Linda Ikeji but has no space for Akwaeke Emezi or Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, it read like a bait, but ultimately failed to begin the conversation it really should have. However, after attending the body’s awards ceremony, Jennifer Emelife of Praxis was having none of it. Her summary of the event and its organizers is humourous, but also saddening because her observations are true. “I was trying to place the winners when a loud cry startled me and indeed everyone else. I tilted my head, afraid of what might come after me, only to behold a woman clapping and crying and thanking God. Her son in the abroad had won the Nigeria Diaspora Writer of the Year, an award for which Teju Cole, Chigozie Obioma and Nnedi Okoroafor were also nominated. I immediately understood her outpour. What better definition of a miracle.” She poses questions for the organizers: “Where and how do you get your nominations? Who are the judges for these awards? If you are going to be introducing ‘new’ authors to us, can you at least tell us why you think they are most suitable for the awards for which they win? Like, ‘so and so is the Fiction Writer of the Year for her short story published in so and so….’? On what basis are these awards given? What exactly are the standards?”
Also check out our list of the 31 best pieces of 2016.
Post image by Derick Anies via Upsplash
- Abdul Adan
- aminatta forna
- Angela Ajayi
- binyavanga wainanaina
- boston review
- enkare review
- fifth wednesday journal
- Grace Oluseyi
- Imbolo mbue
- koye oyedeji
- kwame dawes
- linda musita
- nonso anyanwu
- rotimi babatunde
- Socrates Mbamalu
- the guardian uk
- the magunga
- thomas rajula
- troy onyango
- virginia quarterly review