Life Must Go On

After the civil war, Imperi, a small Sierra Leonean town, tries to rebuild the life it used to have. Three characters, Kadie, Moiwa and Kainesi, come to their native town waiting for the return of the younger generation. Everybody is willing to start anew.

However, after a while, their goodwill and energy cannot resist material precariousness: the town lacks food and clean water, the teachers don’t get paid on time; the corruption of local administration officers ravages, rapes and accidents destroy the fragile peace and hope of the townspeople.

After the resounding success of A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah’s second novel is a story of hope and deep humanity. Beah imposes a powerful, lyrical tone in which suffering and sorrow are always transformed into hope and compassion; his characters are all the more powerful because they struggle not only to survive, but to keep their dignity and the cohesion of their community. It is a story of people doing their best to pass on their values, a story told both with gripping lucidity and poetry.

The oral tradition of Mendé language and culture permeates the novel and gives it a particular music and rhythm, and the very plot seems to follow the pattern of an oral story, with a circular structure framed by stanzas that remind the reader of the endless renewal of human hope despite the dramatic turns of fate. Life must go on, and people must live to tell its tale. As the Mendé say,

“It is the end, or maybe the beginning of another story. Each story begins and ends with a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a daughter, a child. Each story is a birth…”

Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah

Sarah Crichton Books | 2015 | ISBN: 978-0374535032

Read our interview with Ishmael Beah here. 

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.

Come Away, My Love | Joseph Kariuki

Come away, my love, from streets
Where mankind eyes divide,
And show windows reflect our difference.
In the shelter of my faithful room rest.

There, safe from opinions, being behind
Myself, I can see only you
And in my dark eyes your grey
Will dissolve

The candlelight throws
Two dark shadows on the wall
Which merge into one as I close beside you.

When at last the lights are out,
And I feel your hand in mine,
Two human breaths join in one,
And the piano weaves
Its unchallenged harmony.

Joseph Kariuki is a Kenyan poet. Born in Banana Hill, Kenya and educated both at Makerere College, Uganda and Cambridge University, England. His most famous poem is an ode to former Kenyan president, Jomo Kenyatta.

On Destiny | Chris Abani

Destiny isn’t a deck of cards stacked up against you.
It is the particular idiosyncrasies of the player, not the deck
or dealer, that hold the key.
Personality always sways the outcome of the game.

–From Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani

The Broken Man

With these contradictory, daring, but deeply human questions Ben Jelloun’s novel challenges the reader and forces him to leave behind his own social and cultural background when he tries to make sense of them—and of all human dilemmas, for that matter.

What if integrity and honesty cannot offer a decent life ?

What if, in a marriage, love is gone and is replaced by greed, remorse and routine ?

  What if, tired of too much correctness, people decide to break free from themselves?

“I remember the first years when I was employed in an office working for the Equipment Seecretary. It was Hlima who had first suggested me to claim a  commission for every file I would sign. It was one of our biggest fights. At first, I tried to tell explain her that corruption was a cancer that was eating away the country, and that my education, my moral principles, my consciousness were firmly opposed to this practice. She told me I wasn’t man enough! This time I laughed. She could not bear this and started to throw objects at me.” (p.27, ABR translation)

Mourad is a middle aged father of two, married to a woman he does not love anymore. An engineer working in a famous firm full of corrupt people, he is the only one holding to his moral principles. Nevertheless, his refusal to give in to the “attentions” his colleagues receive leaves him with only his salary, barely sufficient to grant his family a decent living. Mourad’s life revolves around his children, Karima and Wassit, and Hlima, his bitter wife only interested in wealth and social status. In his forties and in a moment of crisis, Mourad thinks of leaving his unsatisfying life and of becoming someone else.

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Broken Man reminds the reader of Kafka’s dark and absurd universe, in which the human soul is caught in a maze of deceit and injustice. Mourad is a modern Josef K., caught in his own life as in a prison from which he is too shy, too lazy or too honest to escape. The escalating rhythm of the narrative leads the reader from the honest family man to the tormented character who breaks all the rules… and risks everything.

Set in present day Morocco, Ben Jelloun’s novel criticizes corruption as a way of life, of working, of defining oneself; Mourad’s tragedy is that he is constantly studying different possibilities of staying who he is deeply, of keeping his identity no matter what. To this extent, the novel is actually a long self-questioning confession.

Is it, then, possible for a man to become the opposite of what he used to be, just for the sake of change? Is it possible to break free even from one’s identity and try to create another one, in another space and family context?  And what are the risks of such an endeavor?

With these contradictory, daring, but deeply human questions Ben Jelloun’s novel challenges the reader and forces him to leave behind his own social and cultural background when he tries to make sense of them—and of all human dilemmas, for that matter.

The  Broken  Man by  Tahar  Ben  Jelloun

Editions du Seuil | 1994 | ISBN: 9782020214742

An Interview with Tahar Ben Jelloun

 

Review by Ioana Danaila

IMG_0478-2

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.

The Perceived Threat of the “Other”: An Interview with MH Sarkis

“What I learnt is you really need passion and dedication to stick it through and to continue sharing your work, because if you’re not lucky to have someone holding your hand or showing you the ropes, it likely won’t happen. Also there’s not much point looking for insight or approval from those who don’t know or care about what you’re trying to achieve, or waste time applying to things that don’t apply to your artwork.”–MH Sarkis

MH Sarkis is an artist whose work explores cross-cultural tensions and identity. In our interview with her, she tells us where her interest in art stems from, her influences, how it has evolved and her plans for the future.

profile - MH Sarkis
MH Sarkis

ABR: First of all, your name is fascinating. Anyone seeing it without first meeting you is more than likely to think that it’s a man behind the beautiful paintings? What’s the reason behind the pseudonym?
SARKIS: I’m happy the name sparks curiosity. MH is a shortened version of my full first name, which I feel good about keeping under wraps as I continue solidifying myself in the industry.
It’s interesting you should say one would think it’s a man behind the work; recently a national newspaper referred to me as a “he”. I suppose many still consider it to be a male-dominated profession.
Someone came up to me the other day and said “I didn’t expect to see a fine girl behind these paintings!”
I laughed. I don’t mind – I enjoy the element of surprise and challenging expectations and perceptions.
 

ABR: How did you develop an interest in painting and when did you decide to go pro?

SARKIS: I was always drawing and colouring in my childhood. Throughout primary school I enjoyed showing my work to adults and seeing their reactions. Then in secondary school our art teacher told me it would be a shame if I didn’t do anything with my skill-set. Although I didn’t think much of the comment at the time, it encouraged me.
I was more drawn to painting as a medium when I read about the Expressionists and how they explored the body and the self. I tried acrylic paint shortly after, and I fell in love with the “gloop”, its versatility, when I saw I could manipulate it well to the point of presenting something unexpected and visually striking. I had a gut feeling and when that happened I decided to go pro…
I then backed out of my English (Literature) UCAS applications. I wasn’t one to wait [for another round of UCAS] so I enrolled into a liberal arts institution which was happily quite international, and was painting of my own accord throughout undergraduate studies. No regrets o! None at all.

ABR: What was the first work you ever did and the first you ever sold? What has changed since then?

SARKIS: It’s hard to tell; just today I found another work in the house I grew up in, and I’m not sure of the date. The first artwork I sold was a large commissioned landscape piece that wasn’t really connected to my current practice but was a good experience at the time. That was years ago and what has changed is, as I’ve focused on my practice and continued exploring what inspires me, I am now sensing heightened interest from others inside the industry as well as outside.

 

ABR: What influences your style and what medium do you use in painting? 

IMG_20150829_153858SARKIS: Nigerian crafts (I grew up surrounded by carved work and not paintings per se). Masks, scarification, people. The grooves within and around the face. I am also interested in clash of cultures, or a harmony sometimes unexpected. The “other”, and the perceived threat of the “other”. They arise from my own experiences.

I mainly use acrylic paint because it allows flexibility: I can lay it on thickly and shape it, or thinly and as a wash. It also dries more quickly, which is often a good thing as it can encourage instinct if one’s an over-thinker, which I can sometimes be. On the other hand that can be quite dangerous, especially with my way of “digging in” while it’s fresh and workable.

 

 ABR: Your first exhibition in Nigeria “Back on the Island” is currently ongoing. What is the inspiration for your latest paintings?

SARKIS: All stem from real experiences and personal realities. The pieces are somewhat varied but at the heart of the works are notions of “cross-culturalism”, otherness, and identity especially relating to the Sub Sahara and Middle East. Scarification is a big inspiration, but the distinction in my work between markings and sculpturally-influenced lines are often blurred.

 

ABR: What memorable responses have you had to your works?

IMG_20150829_154004SARKIS: A lot of people (many of whom I don’t know) have stared at the works, and eventually, slowly stretch out a finger to touch. At first I would observe and not register how I felt about that as I wasn’t sure; you know often people advise against touching artworks for various reasons. But afterwards I realised I felt happy the work was that textural or tempting for them to just go for it, even when they knew full well the artist was standing a few feet away. Thankfully they were gentle.

 

ABR: How has painting influenced your life?

SARKIS: The painting process, as well as the surrounding and resulting events, has been cathartic. It is one of the strongest ways to express myself; I feel if we can’t express our story the best we can, we have the tendency to act it out in ways that are difficult to comprehend.

In short I have been able to understand my personal history, experiences, and triggers and tie things together through the medium. I am able to form relationships with others through sharing my work whereas previously, I had experienced feelings of isolation that can come with being a migrant here.

 

ABR: What setbacks have you experienced in your artistic journey and what did you learn from it/them?

IMG_20150829_153938SARKIS: I left university and didn’t have artistic contacts or networks to join in the UK (let alone Nigeria where I previously was). Most of my peers left the country after graduation. There was no tangible support system and I felt like I was starting from rock bottom. It was that sense of isolation and detachment, which I linked to “outsider-ness”, all over again. Getting online and applying to many open calls helped, as I then exhibited widely in and around London. I eventually came across the ‘Outside In’ platform, and the ‘Saatchi Art’ platform which then featured me a few times. This all happened back when I had a full-time job, and commuted well over an hour most days after work to my studio, and later to an artist residency with Free Space Gallery.

What I learnt is you really need passion and dedication to stick it through and to continue sharing your work, because if you’re not lucky to have someone holding your hand or showing you the ropes, it likely won’t happen. Also there’s not much point looking for insight or approval from those who don’t know or care about what you’re trying to achieve, or waste time applying to things that don’t apply to your artwork.

 

ABR: Aside from painting, do you do anything else to release your creativity? If yes, what are they?

SARKIS: I enjoy writing poetry and prose now and then. I used to write short stories often but haven’t written one in a while. The last one was based on a real-life event in Lagos and involved Pidgin. I was pleased with it but my computer crashed and I hadn’t backed it up. I still get worked up thinking about it! Now that’s where painting has the upper hand!
 

ABR: You’ll be going for your residency in Egypt soon. How did that come about and what are your plans afterwards?

IMG_20150829_175714
Mh Sarkis and ABR interviewer, Chioma Nkemdilim

SARKIS: The Gallery Manager and Managing Director of ‘Gallery Ward’ saw my artwork and invited me to join them as artist-in-residence at their base in Giza, which I am looking forward to especially as I understand Egypt is a culturally unique yet influential place, and a meeting point between Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East, aspects that currently concern my work.

I look forward to seeing how the residency could inform my practice but at the same time perhaps give me a fresh start.

I can’t say exactly yet, but my general plan for afterwards is to continue taking things up a notch in terms of visual presentation.

 

ABR: What is your ultimate goal professionally?

SARKIS: I often feel wary about saying too much in future tense, also because I don’t feel there is an “end-point” or set goal. But at the moment the aim it is to take myself back home and keep me mobile. I also would like to solidify a connection between the places that have influenced me and mean something to me. I want to solidify myself. I want my work to continue hanging here in Nigeria, in the UK, and in Lebanon. If it trickles over their borders, that would be good too.

 

ABR: Where can we find your art work? 

IMG_20150829_154310SARKIS: Nike Art Gallery and Quintessence at the moment. Online, mainly within my Saatchi Art portfolio (www.saatchiart.com/sarkisartist)

For updates as well as artworks you can follow my Instagram (@sarkisartist) or Facebook page (www.facebook.com/sarkisartist)

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)

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.

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.