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)

So Long A Letter | Guest Review by Jade Yeung

“You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don’t know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chosen and who has chosen you.” – Pg 58

So Long a Letter is an epistolary novel written in the voice of Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese school teacher. Addressed to her best friend Aissatou, the letters chronicle Ramatoulaye’s emotional journey after her husband’s second marriage and his unexpected death. Written in a refreshingly forthright manner, the novel avoids usual narrative arcs (a beginning, climax and end) from the onset, the reader is aware of what has occurred to fuel Ramatoulaye’s letters.

In her first letter, Ramatoulaye writes to Aissatou, “Yesterday you were divorced. Today I am a widow.” The novel occupies the gap between these two sentences, as Bâ explores topics from African feminism to the intertwined relationship of tradition and religion and its implications for women such as Ramatoulaye, caught between a ‘new’ post-colonial Senegal and an allegiance to the patriarchal values that nourished her upbringing. Ramatoulaye’s thoughts reveal her to be a strong woman persevering under an oppressive patriarchy, shaped to some extent by societal, marital and religious traditions.

She writes “Start again at zero, after living twenty-five years with one man, after having borne twelve children? …. I had lost my slim figure. My stomach protruded from the wrapper…. Suckling had robbed my breasts of their round firmness. I could not delude myself: youth was deserting my body.”

These depictions of her female body as a vessel for bearing children are conflated with knowledge of the limitations placed on women by society.  While conversing with a male friend who works at the National Assembly, she fiercely rebuts a passive sexist remark:

Nearly twenty years of independence! When will we have the first female minister involved in the decisions concerning the development of our country? And yet the militancy and ability of our women, their disinterested commitment, have already been demonstrated. Women have raised more than one man to power… When will education be decided for children on the basis not of sex but of talent?

Though Ramatoulaye seems to dwell in virtual isolation, suspended between different ideologies and isolated by the practical realities of raising young children while mourning a dead husband and failed relationship, the reader never feels alone. Indeed, it often feels like Ramatoulaye is addressing not Aissatou but the reader. Her sufferings are not over, as her daughter points out, but she has not finished living either. In fact, it rather feels that Ramatoulaye is entering a new, promising epoch by the end of the novel.

Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter is a cornerstone of African feminisms, written brilliantly with calm and passionate intelligence, and it should be read by anyone tired of MFA poetry or empty fiction. Bâ was relevant yesterday and is relevant today.

So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ.

Translated to English by Modupe Bode-Thomas

Heineman | 1989| ISBN: 978-0-435905-55-2


548973_10150628616752966_250410152_nJade Yeung
was born and raised in Brooklyn. She received her BA in English at Hunter College. She reads literary fiction, poetry published before the 1980’s, and compelling non-fiction. When she’s not working one of several jobs in publishing and food, she likes to cook and listen to podcasts.

Americanah | Guest Review by Somto Ibe

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.” – Pg 222

One of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Adiche has-dare I saybecome a maestro of sorts in the art of storytelling. Her work, in my opinion, reveals the importance of effective communication; the right mixture of simplicity, depth and finesse that is required to capture the attention of her diverse audience. You can therefore imagine my fascination when I learnt she was publishing a new book titled Americanah. With such a funky name, I couldn’t wait to read what she had put together this time.

Americanah is a complicated love story set in Nigeria and America, focused on the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze. Adventurous Ifemelu leaves Nigeria to further her education in America expecting, like many, to arrive in a land flowing with milk and honeyfiguratively speaking of coursebut encounters a host of sometimes amusing, yet often poignant surprises in the country.

One of such surprises is that skin colour may determine one’s experiences in America. This issue of race and skin colour leads Ifemelu to start a blog titled ‘Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.’ In one of her insightful blog posts she writes,

Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.

Adichie also tackles issues from growth in relationships to hair politics. Ifemelu’s values and opinions change as she moves from her relationship with Obinze a fellow Nigerian, to a white boyfriend, an African-American and finally back to Obinze (a rather interesting cycle with connotations worth contemplating).

Adichie’s focus on two West Africans does not limit the novel’s reach. After hearing my commentaries and uncontrollable fits of laughter while reading the novel, my Indian roommate asked to read it. Whenever she found something in the book to identify with, she would inform me and I must say, we bonded strongly over this book. She even ended up concluding that the values of our respective societies might be quite the same.

Americanah is a well written book that will make you think, lead you through an adventurous journey, and incite an array of emotions in you.

Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

Knopf | 2013| ISBN: 978-0-307-27108-2

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Somto Ibe was born in the ancient city of Ibadan, in Nigeria, and lives in Canada. She’s studying to be a chemical engineer and likes a good read of any sort but preferrably historical fiction.

A Simple Lust By Dennis Brutus

Born in 1924 in Salisbury to South African parents, Brutus is best known for his protest poetry which challenged the South African apartheid while celebrating freedoms all men ought to have. He was instrumental in the exclusion of South Africa and Rhodesia from the 1964 Olympics on the grounds of racism. His activism led to his being banned from all political and social activity and in 1973 he was arrested but escaped while on bail. He was later re-arrested and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. He spent those months on Robben Island, in a cell next to Nelson Mandela. Described as “A fearless campaigner for justice, a relentless organizer, an incorrigible romantic, and a great humanist and teacher,” Brutus died on 26 December 2009, at his home in Cape Town, South Africa.

584232-2A Simple Lust is a beautiful collection of Brutus’ poems during his time as a political prisoner and exile traveling the world unable to return to South Africa. Brutus captures the alternating awareness of limitations and challenges such restrictions in his poems about the land of South Africa, “A troubadour I traverse all my land… and I have laughed, disdaining those who banned/ inquiry and movement…choosing, like an unarmed thumb, simply to stand…” (2)

And stand he does, in his resistance to the forces of oppression and his insistence on delimiting the land as his, he captures the emotional gamut of black and colored South Africans, from the desire to fight for freedom, “Sharpevilled to spearpoints for revenging…” (9) to a simple resolute appreciation for just surviving, “Somehow we survive,/ and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither” (4).

Little can match  the well of understanding and emotion Brutus deftly disperses throughout A Simple Lust, yet his writing style and keen sense of observation elevate the reader’s experience even more. Brutus does to words what Achebe did to African Literature, he expands our appreciation of them. With words such as ‘air-live,’ ‘harsh-joy,’ ‘lovelaughter,’ he pushes their limitations past meaning into feeling.

A Simple Lust takes the reader from the darting eyes of a prisoner in his cell describing the effects of confinement on the psyche, to desolate beaches in Algiers, through the sorrowed longings of a wife separated from her husband, presenting cold reflections on ‘Amerika…the home of the brave’ (144), and on. Brutus welcomes the reader into a lush, experienced, understanding of oppression and resistance. More importantly, it offers a profound sense of what it means to carry joy as hope and to, as Brutus, reject desolation as the only reality.

“Peace will come./ We have the power/ the hope/ the resolution./ Men will go home.” (96)

A Simple Lust by Dennis Brutus

African Writers Series | 1979 | ISBN: 0 435 90115 X | HEB 115

Sefi Atta: An Interview with a Leading Nigerian Author

The African Book Review’s editor, Etinosa, had a conversation with renowned Nigerian author, Sefi Atta about her new book, A Bit of Difference, the changing roles of women in Nigeria and the unique position of young Nigerians growing up in the diaspora.

ARB: A BIT OF DIFFERENCE seems to take a moment in Deola’s life and use that as a lens for exploring a host of social issues. What inspired the book and did you have a goal when you set out to write the novel?

ATTA: I was inspired by the poster I described at the beginning of the novel. I saw it at Hartsfield-Jackson international airport in Atlanta, where I catch my connecting flights to Nigeria and England. My goal was to return to the territory of my debut novel Everything Good Will Come. I had stayed away for a while but I felt the time was right to revisit it.

ARB: One of the things that stood out to us in the novel was how astute the protagonist was in both noticing and maneuvering how other people perceive and categorized her. Is Deola symbolic of Nigerian youth caught between the varying (and sometimes conflicting) expectations of western and Nigerian societies? (Do you think being in that position is more difficult or advantageous than say, being a Nigerian born, raised, and residing in Nigeria?)

ATTA: Deola is tired of failing to live up to other people’s expectations, but I don’t know that her predicament would be any different if she’d never left Nigeria. She might not have to deal with the perceptions of foreigners, but she would have to deal with the perceptions of other Nigerians. I live in Nigeria, England and the United States. I have my working life in Mississippi, my social life in Lagos and a bit of both in London. I enjoy being able to escape from one country to another when I can.

ARB: To a fair extent, the female body is often regarded as social property to be regulated not just by the woman, but by society at large under the guise of morality. However, Deola stands out (and was truly inspiring) in her willingness to be comfortable and assertive with regards to her femininity and sexuality. Is this a reflection of modern Nigerian society? And what ideally, do you want the future of the Nigerian girl to look like in terms of the choices society affords her, and the choices she can make for herself?

ATTA: I would be lying if I said I thought about any of these issues while I was writing the novel. I will say this, though. We express our femininity and sexuality differently, depending on the generation to which we belong, our religions and cultures. The growth of the telecommunications industry in Nigeria has also radically changed how we see and project ourselves. It has increased our choices, but not necessarily in positive or empowering ways. I see Nigerian girls who are sexualized too young, who model themselves after celebrities and hip-hop video girls. My thing is this: Use your brains, whatever you do. Nigeria is not forgiving of anyone who makes stupid decisions. Thankfully, I see Nigerian girls who are enterprising, hardworking and smart.

Continue reading “Sefi Atta: An Interview with a Leading Nigerian Author”

A Bit of Difference

Who: Deola Bello

What: Exploring what it means to be a contemporary African woman.

Why: Female, thirties, working for international charity, soon pregnant, single, Nigerian. Nothing is unusual, nothing is as it should be.

Should I read it: Necessary for women everywhere and all the men in their lives.

Qq: “[Deola] gave up her virginity when she had no more use for it. Losing her virginity was like discovering her hair was not her crowning glory” – Pg 97

A Bit of Difference presents a commentary on African femininity, specific to Nigeria, yet easily applicable to women worldwide. The novel is assertive in its exploration and insightful in detailing the complexities, limitations, joys, and paradoxes of being a Nigerian woman, living within or outside the country. Using the life of Deola Bello, a single auditor working for a British charity, Atta explores everything from Western perceptions of Africa and indeed African women, to the contradictions inherent in social expectations for women and their abilities to meet, ignore, or defy set expectations.  A Bit of Difference, much less a novel than a brilliant portrait, successfully achieves what all good poetry strives for; it picks a moment and explores it. Atta offers no comfortable narratives or righteous solutions; instead her honest voice challenges the reader’s understanding of what it means to be Nigerian, African, British, European, American, but above all, what it means to be a woman inhabiting the battle ground that is the female body.

A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta

Interlink Books | 2013 | ISBN: 978-1-56656-892-0

Read our interview with Sefi Atta here.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families

We wish to inform you…

Who: Rwanda, 1994.

Why: Simple answer: The final kindling of a flame, centuries old, leading to a massive flare, hundreds of thousands dead.

Should I read it: Yes.

Qq: “Rwanda had the memories and the habits of a long past, yet the rupture in that past had been so absolute that the country I was driving through was a place that has never existed before” Pg. 180

Surviving violence is often an extension of the pain one has escaped. Indeed, when that pain is caused by your neighbour, your in-law, your priest, your government, surviving is a rebirth into an essentially different world. An intriguing, if slightly undeveloped, aspect of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, is Gourevitch’s focus on the survivors of the genocide. Having provided an indepth look at the forces behind the genocide, (“genocide is never spontaneous”) Gourevitch seeks to understand how the survivors battled the fears, guilt, and hopes that came with that position. He asks, along with the Rwandans he interviews, how to face western forces that first helped feed into the hate and propaganda spurring Hutus to kill hundreds of thousands of their Tutsi friends, in-laws, congregation members, neighbours, using only machetes, then turned away from requests to intervene and stop the violence, provided aid to perpetrators-turned-refugees, and then arrogantly demanded that both Tutsi and Hutu fractions put aside their differences, like little children, and live together again. (Desmond Tutu urged them to bond over their shared blackness). In many ways, Gourevitch attempts to underscore the efforts of the people and the nation as a whole, not to pretend to move past their pain, but in light of their shared and individual experiences of violence, loss, and devastation, answer the bigger question, “now what?” Should the violence be forgotten? Should it be commemorated (Rwanda now has a national holiday in remembrance of the genocide), can the batutsi reach out to the bahutu? Can a tutsi woman raped during the genocide love her enfant mauvais souvenir, child of her hutu rapist? When does the pain go away? Gourevitch’s recount is not just a piece of investigative journalism, it’s not just a westerner attempting to piece together a foreign story, it’s an insight into what it means to experience the extreme violence humanity carries out against humanity, and what it means to survive, to find the right words to ask questions with no compact answers, to seek an amorphous justice, to understand the limitations of retribution, and to live. We Wish to Inform You, is not light reading, it’s necessary reading.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

Pcador | 1999 | ISBN: 9780312243357

Ghana Must Go, A Novel

Ghana Must Go

Who: The Sai family, a loosely knit yet inexplicably bound group, each facing different directions yet somehow holding on.

Why: Failure, Success, Expectations, Betrayal.

Should I read it: On a cool day with lots of time to spare

Qq: “It was the reason, he thought they built churches so big, and investment banks so impressive. To dazzle the faithful. Arrogance by association. The machine was in control, and so he was in control who belonged to it” Pg 69

The women of Ghana Must Go, are creatures who exist in a manner that few other writers have captured. Many times excuses are made for the humanity of characters, banal characteristics used to code and justify their existence. Selasi however, grants her women an existence that does not need justification. They are because they are. Yet they somehow remain intangible to the reader, vessels suspended in the space between critical consciousness, and intimacy. Selasi’s writing style maintains a distance that sometimes successfully works emotion and tenderness into the tale. At other times, the narrator’s distance is much too far and the reader feels as though in a Brecht play, too conscious of the fourth wall, unable to grasp the humanity of the characters, or view them as anything other than threads succumbing to Selasi’s convulsing attempts to weave an intricate tapestry. Intricate it might be, but a complete tapestry it is not. The reader is therefore left with convoluted knots, spaces with unraveling threads, coupled with brilliant patches that underscore Selasi’s genius and force one to keep reading in the hopes that the rest of the narrative maintains such illusive brilliance. It therefore comes as a surprise when a grey character exudes a contentment that is critical to, yet almost overlooked in Selasi’s tapestry. Her contentment weighs as the anchor of the book, the place towards which each character is destined, but never quite arrives. It is audacious in a way that echoes the unfulfilled aspirations of Ghana Must Go.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Penguin Press| 2013| ISBN: 978-1594204494

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Who: Ishmael Beah

What: The coming of age story of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone

Why: War

Should I read It: Absolutely!

Qq: ‘When I was little, my father used to say, “If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die”’ –Pg 54

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, leaves behind the distant jargon of discourse surrounding war, and in a gorgeously frank voice shows us the humanity such discourse avoids. When we hear about rebels taking over a city, women raped before their families, suicide bombers in crowded marketplaces, and focus on the violence, we catalogue it as ‘news’ but never engage with the emotions, the people, the humanity lost, found, and altered within such violence. Memoirs of a Boy Soldier isn’t just about war, it’s more than a coming of age story in a desperate situation, it’s a tender vice that slowly expands reader’s understanding of how much humanity is. A Long Way Gone shows that in spite of all the pain and horrors humanity can inflict and accommodate, the lengths the human spirit will go to hold us together, to reach out to other people, and find in our hearts, new spaces to call home. Beah notes, “If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die” (54). A Long Way Gone is evidence that perhaps there is always good lying ahead, and the human spirit is capable of fighting very hard to get there.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

Sarah Crichton Books | 2007 | ISBN: 918-0-374-53126-3

Check out our interview with Ishmael Beah here.