Happy New Year: A Letter from Our Editor

Dear African Book Review reader,

The African Book Review marked its second year in 2015. During this period we reviewed established and debut African literature. We also interviewed leaders, development coordinators, and other people at the forefront of change on the continent. Mid-year we focused on reviewing poetry from some of the continent’s legends, Gabriel Okra, Kofi Awoonor, and others. We also had delightful conversations, full of insight and passion with writers of our current generation including Yvonne Owuor, Dango Mkandawire, and more. 

The African Book Review wouldn’t exist without writers, editors, reviewers, and readers around the world. We’d like to say thank you to everyone who has been a part of this incredible project, especially our 2015 team:

Ioana Danaila: Ioana is our lead reviewer. From Romania, she is based in France and speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish. In addition to reviews of books written in English, Ioana has allowed us to expand our coverage and interview African novels written in French.

Viola Allo: Viola is a Cameroonian-born poet and essayist based in the United States. She published her first chapbook of poems Bird From Africa in 2015. Viola writes on her blog, Letters to Cameroon.

Chioma Nkemdilim: Chioma is based in Nigeria and conducted many of our interviews this year as a collaboration with her website, That Igbo Girl.

(If you want to join our team, just reply to this email with a link to your blog or sample of your writing)

We’re excited to collaborate with more readers, artists, and writers; those concerned about the continent, those engaged and active within Africa, and those whose works reflect the vibrancy of African literature, as ours does. 

To a great 2016!

Sincerely,

Etinosa Agbonlahor Founder, Editor | The African Book Review

New Year’s Eve Midnight | Gabriel Okara

Now the bells are tolling–

A year is dead.

And my heart is slowly beating

the Nunc Dimittis

to all my hopes and mute

yearnings of a year

and ghosts hover round

dream beyond dream

 

Dream beyond dream

mingling with the dying

bell-sounds fading

into memories

like rain drops

falling into a river.

 

And now the bells are chiming–

A year is born.

And my heart-bell is ringing

in a dawn.

But it’s shrouded things I see

dimly stride

on heart-canopied paths

to a riverside.

Gabriel Okara was born in 1921 in Nembe in Rivers State, Nigeria. He is one of the most significant early Nigerian poets. Often concerned with the identity of his people, throughout his poetry, there is evidence of the influence of the traditional folk literature of his people. (Culled from A Selection of African Poetry, annotated by K.E. Senanu and T. Vincent)

The Cathedral | Kofi Awoonor

On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.


Kofi Awoonor (13 March 1935 – 21 September 2013) was a Ghanaian poet and author whose work combined the poetic traditions of his native Ewe people and contemporary and religious symbolism to depict Africa during decolonization. He started writing under the name George Awoonor-Williams, and was also published as Kofi Nyidevu Awoonor. He taught African literature at the University of Ghana.

Awoonor1
The firewood of this world/ Is only for those who can take heart/ That is why not all can gather it…[Professor Dr. Kofi Awoonor – A Tribute] (Songs of Sorrow I)

SILLERMAN FIRST BOOK PRIZE FOR AFRICAN POETS

The African Poetry Book Series invites submissions to the Sillerman First Book Prize from all emerging African writers who have not yet published a book-length collection of poetry. 

The winning manuscript receives publication with the University of Nebraska Press and Amalion Press in Senegal and a prize of USD $1000.

An “African writer” is taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, who is a national or resident of an African country, or whose parents are African. Past winners include Madman at Kilifi by Clifton Gachagua, The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony by Ladan Osman, and Fuchsia by Mahtem Shiferraw.

Poetry manuscripts should be at least 50 pages long. All entries will be read anonymously, and the winner will be chosen by the African Poetry Book Fund Editorial Board. There is no fee to submit, and no application forms are necessary. Writers may submit more than one manuscript. The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets accepts electronic submissions ONLY.

Click here to submit via Submittable.

Silence Is a Steady Hand, Palm Flat

“What you hear is not my voice.

I have not spoken in three years: not since I left boot camp. It has been three years of senseless war, and, if the reasons for it are clear, and though we will continue to fight till we are ordered to stop—and probably for a while after that—none of us could remember the hate that lead us here. We are simply fighting to survive the war.

(…) We have developed a crude way of talking, a sort of language that we have become fluent in. For instance, silence is a steady hand palm flat, facing down. The word silencio, which we also like, involves the same sign, with the addition of wiggling fingers, and though this seems like a playful touch, is actually means a deeper silence, or danger, and as in any language, context is everything.”

My Luck, a fifteen year-old soldier, wakes up after an explosion and discovers his platoon has disappeared. He then decides to go back to the destroyed villages to find his comrades. On the way, My Luck relives his old memories, thinking about his dead parents, his friends, and Ijeoma—his girlfriend who also died in a guerilla attack.

As the journey unfolds, the reader discovers that My Luck cannot speak because his vocal cords have been cut; the boy and his comrades communicate in an invented sign language. My Luck’s language becomes both a means of communication between mute people, but also a poetic and metaphoric way of seeing and understanding the world: silence is “a steady hand”, night—a “palm pulled over the eyes”. Any feeling or notion can be expressed by tangible gestures.

Abani’s brilliant novel is concerned with language and with how people preserve their dignity by communication.

Humans are dependent on language, on expression, on representation, this seems to be his postulate. My Luck’s tone is simple, focusing on the beauty of words and the deep connections communication fosters between people. In spite of the nightmarish things he goes through, My Luck’s luck is his language—and Abani’s novel is proof that communication keeps us alive.

Song for the Night by Chris Abani

9781846590573| 2008| Telegram Books

Review by Ioana Danaila

Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.

Bodies, Flowerbeds: A Villanelle | Viola Allo

The earth, carved up, engraved with bodies,

this hollow vision of death: people resting

together, bodies beneath a bed of flowers.

 

We soften death into poems and stories.

The art of writing is just a way of wailing

for the earth, carved up, sculpted by bodies.

 

In Cameroon, hair from the dead is carried,

mixed with camwood and kept; the living

remember bodies beneath beds of flowers.

 

What we seek through our endless studies

sits beyond death, but the path to it is sinking

into a carved-up earth, paved with bodies.

 

The sharp shovel of silence briefly remedies

the ear deaf to the voices of the dead, linking

it to slender-petaled tongues in a flowerbed.

 

A poem or a story is an etching of memories,

dignity in the fragile face of loss. Soothing

the earth, carved up, engraved with bodies,

we hum together beside a bed of flowers.

Sci-fi, creative writing and wizards – Africa’s best authors discuss modern literature with The Guardian

Despite the talent of and calibre of African writers, most struggle to get the international recognition they deserve. The Caine Prize, now in its 16th year, seeks to remedy this with an annual celebration of the continent’s best writers.

Focused on short-stories the accolade has been awarded to some of the most prominent names from the continent today, including Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina, Sierra Leone’s Olufemi Terry and Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo.

But why do African writers struggle to get noticed? Is the “African literature” grouping a help or hindrance? What, if anything, links these writers together? Is there really such as “African literature”?

The Guardian asked the five shortlisted writers from this year’s Caine prize – Segun Afolabi, Elnathan John, FT Kola, Masande Ntshanga and Namwali Serpell – to join a panel to discuss these questions; offer tips for budding writers and talk about their work. Here’s a link. 

Only A Free Man Can Tell the Truth

“To know is not enough. One must try to understand too. There will be a lot of talking in the Cape these days, one man’s word against another’s, master against slave. But what’s the use? Liars all. Only a free man can tell the truth. In the shadow of death, one must walk on tiptoe, for death is a deathly thing.”

In the early nineteenth century, a slave rebellion, one of the very few that ever existed, rises in the Cape Colony in the heart of South Africa. On a farm, the master’s family and the slaves co-exist, at first without really interfering with each other; the white master, Piet, is tough and inflexible farmer, Alida, his wife is sad, nostalgic about her youth in the Cape. As their two sons Nicolaas and Barend get married and build their own lives on separate farms, the slave community has to follow the new masters. With time, new tensions and passions form until a rebellion eventually occurs.

The increasing tension is at first framed by an act of accusation of the slaves, the novel is literally the chain of characters’ voices speaking; all characters, dead and alive, have their say in this literary chorus. It is this tense climate that the debate on the abolition of slavery reaches the ears of the Bokkenveld inhabitants, disrupting the established relationships between masters and slaves, men and women, friends and enemies.

The atmosphere of the book is very similar to one before a storm; there are signs of change, the wind silently blowing in different directions… As the abolition of slavery comes to the front stage, the established norms in human relations change and even blur; old friends are set apart by ambition or rivalry, wives question their husbands and their precarious status. A Chain of Voices is at the same time a chorus of different tones and complaints, and the clanging echo of chains breaking to set the human spirit free.

A Chain of Voices by Andre Brink

 9781402208652| 2007| Sourcebooks Landmarks

Review by Ioana Danaila

IMG_0478-2Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.

Ways of Dying

A young man sets out from his home village in South Africa on a quest for self-sufficiency. He is no more than a boy but his journey becomes one of self-discovery and beyond that, a journey of radical self-invention. Compelled by cruel circumstances and forces beyond his control, he propels himself through desperation and survives disaster after disaster. He is the epitome of human agency. He is Toloki.

On his journey from his village and into an urban and industrial world, he faces dire economic straights and profound disappointment, seemingly at every turn. His humble successes and modest progress are thwarted by a society that does not recognize his value as an enterprising individual and certainly not as a person worth protecting and nurturing. His own people do not fully value him. Perhaps, they simply cannot see him as worthy, even if they wanted to, because he does not possess what they would consider an ideal appearance or intelligence.

Despite the odds stacked against him, Toloki thrives. He thrives in the sense that he is happy and at peace within himself and with the choices he makes for his life and his livelihood. He clings to his dignity, at all costs. He refuses to succumb to a life of begging. Toloki may be poor beyond what most of us can imagine, but he chooses to live without depending on charity or the generosity of the people he encounters. He will work in exchange for whatever help he receives from others. He pays back his debts and upholds his principle of self-sufficiency.

Out of the failures and disappointments of his life, Toloki learns great lessons on not just how to survive with dignity but how to live a life endowed with purpose. His life may be one of poverty, but it is a life is rich in meaning and direction. Let’s be clear: There is nothing glorious about poverty, but poverty can never define the human spirit. Similarly, oppression and injustice cannot define the human spirit. Toloki exemplifies this radical human power of self-definition. Out of the chaos of his circumstance, Toloki creates a beautiful new order. He fashions a profession for himself that he can believe in and through which he can serve others. He becomes a Professional Mourner. He works for those who cannot pay him very much but who can appreciate the work he does.

In a world that seems to thrive on an economy of death, a heartless world keen on destroying its dark-skinned citizens and children (their innocence, their dreams, their futures), Toloki manages to preserve his heart. And along the way, he meets individuals whose lives are illuminated by compassion and laughter. There is hope that goodness can be found and good people exist, even if their dreams, ambitions, and lives are cut short. As a Professional Mourner, Toloki certainly participates in the economy of death, but he defines the terms of his participation and opts to work in a manner that is as minimally exploitative and destructive as possible. He strives to work and live from the heart.

Continue reading “Ways of Dying”

Astonishing the Gods

“It is better to be invisible. His life was better when he was invisibile, but he didn’t know it at the time. His mother was invisible too, and that was how she could see him. His people lived contented lives, working on the farms, under the familiar sunlight. Their lives stretched back into the invisible centuries and all that had come down from those differently coloured ages were legends and rich traditions, unwritten and therefore remembered. They were remembered because they were lived.”

An invisible man from an invisible people. A quest for meaning. A journey throughout the world. Extraordinary places and strange guides. Magic and miracles as ordinary events.

An invisible man in a world of images…

In this modern fable, Ben Okri draws the extraordinary and enchanted pathway of a man obsessed with finding out why he’s invisible. As in classic fairy tales or fables, he encounters dangers, the temptations of the flesh and the advice of spiritual guides along the way. Yet his question remains: why is he invisible?

Astonishing the Gods is, as some critics have said, “deceptively simple” precisely because it questions a world of incessant questions, a world hungry for results, for exact answers. The invisible man’s journey in a world of images also makes the reader wonder about the questionable depth of a world of images, a world like ours in which visual reality is so powerful and yet so deceitful.

The invisible character has no name and no actual physical shape, so he could be anyone: here lies the mastery of the author in creating a world of ethereal words and images, in which the landmarks of our world fade away to make way for the untold truths and the unseen realities.

Okri’s fable about the classical quest brings the character to discover that identity is something other than he expected. Not the result, but the quest, the road, the process. Not an answer, but the asking process. Not what was expected, but surprise. Because in Okri’s book what we find is something beyond words and images… and we never really look for such ephemerality on purpose.

Astonishing the Gods by Ben Okri

978-0753808641| 1999| Phoenix

Review by Ioana Danaila

IMG_0478-2Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.