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

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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. 

When Doctors become Storytellers

“This is how it is when you glimpse a woman for the first time, a woman you know you could love. People are wrong when they talk of love at first sight. It is neither love nor lust. No. As she walks away from you, what you feel is loss. A premonition of loss.”

Freetown, January 1969, an evening party at the university campus. Elias Cole, an academic, sees his colleague’s wife, Saffia and becomes irreversibly attracted to her.  Thus begins the most powerful story of his life, full of betrayal, passion and obsession. Freetown, 1999, in a hospital. Cole is now very ill in the care of Adrian Lockheart, a psychologist. In the same hospital Kai, a young surgeon and a survivor of the civil war, suffers from a double wound: the injuries of war and lost love.

The three lives are intertwined in distress, violence, political and social instability —the perfect context to portray the fragility of the human condition. Unfolding through three simultaneous voices, timelines and spaces, Aminatta Forna’s second novel gives the reader a fragmented, yet vivid and sometimes cruel image of how war changes lives.  However, the fact that the three main characters are either healers or victims of physical injuries (be they victims or doctors), also shows to what point love can be the most vivid and harmful wound.

The plot is centered on memories, on relics, on what is left when love is no more, or, more interestingly, what the survivors of love become. The possible answer, common to the three characters, is that writing and story-telling is only way to keep the feeling, and oneself, alive: Elias Cole’s life is the story that we read when he is speaking to Adrian Lockheart who keeps a textbook of psychologic pathologies as a means of preserving and putting order in his life.

The Memory of Love is a book about what love injuries, like war injuries, can do to the human soul, and also how stories help us gain perspective and direction in life. In the violent context of war, physical pain and death, love marks can only be healed by words and story-tellers become doctors.

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

Bloomsbury Paperbacks| 2011| 978-1408809655

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.

 

A Book That Shows Humanity in the Midst of Chaos

“We are happy here, never mind how others might describe us…” 193

Knots, set during the civil war in Mogadishu, tells the story of Cambara, a Somali born woman who leaves her broken life in Canada and returns to her homeland. After a betrayal by her husband results in the accidental death of her young son, Cambara builds a mission for herself; a mission to return to a city in chaos and reclaim her family’s property from a minor warlord.

Farah no doubt, shows his ability to capture the reader’s interest, to guide us through a very human story set in the cruel circumstance of war. He presents characters that are living consequences of their situation and avoids making them empty, war-worn souls.

Farah portrays Cambara as a heroine, a woman whose devastating loss has made her daring, made her a woman, unrelenting. However, as the story progresses, I found that although Cambara has boatloads of conviction, she is hardly a figure upon which such grandiose plans can be loaded, upon which we can rely to execute such plans with bravery and ferocity. Throughout the novel, Cambara constantly enlists the help of others. Although this serves to show that people can be generous in the most difficult of circumstances, at times, it takes away from the character we want to believe Cambara is, from the force we expected her to be when we first heard of her plans.

Knots is a book that depicts a war ravaged city without making this the end-all-be-all of its people. I found the strength of this book in characters like Kiin, a woman who runs a hotel and makes a good life for herself and her family in Mogadishu despite having the means to leave. We see her with other women, like Raxia, a doctor, running a ‘Women for Peace’ network with courage and commitment despite the consequences they may face for some of their efforts. This portrayal of purposeful characters that not only build their lives in the most difficult of circumstances but also dedicate themselves to ameliorating the conditions of others, allows the reader to glimpse full stories where war is not center stage and where humanity can be found in the midst of chaos.

Knots by Nuruddin Farah

Penguin |2007| ISBN: 978-0143112983

Review by Liyou Mesfin Libsekal

 Liyou Mesfin Libsekal  is an Ethiopian poet born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She spent the majority of her childhood in different parts of East Africa. She earned a BA in Anthropology from the George Washington University in 2012; she now lives in her home country. She’s the winner of the 2014 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Find more of her work here and on Facebook

 

 

Ahmed Yerima: An Interview with the Esteemed African Playwright

Ahmed Yerima is one of Africa’s most esteemed playwrights and has written over a dozen award-winning historical plays set in and around Nigeria. Some of his plays include; The Lottery Ticket; Yemoja; Hard Ground; Attahiru; The Trials of Oba Ovoramwem; Kaffir’s Last Game, and more. In 2006, Yerima was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian National Theatre, before that he served as director of the National Troupe. He is currently a professor in Nigeria and has served on numerous arts committees around the world.

ABR: What influenced your decision to use historical and mythical figures in your plays?

YERIMA: Historical figures are very dramatic, very interesting…because these historical figures lived a long time ago, history has set up a template for them that they can’t leave: a wicked king remains a wicked king, he killed eight wives he killed eight wives, he killed his son he killed his son. So I have a set structure to work with. Also, most of them are dead so I can add to the stories that already exist about them, I can manipulate them to some extent. The major problem is finding a way to use these characters to say something new to a different generation. So when I use historical figures, I am trying to twist, expand and extend them so that they create meaning, not just as historical figures but as images that contemporary society can relate to.

ABR: Would you cast your work as a form of social realism?

YERIMA: Well I am not conscious of categories, I’m more conscious of writing plays about human characters. My definition of drama is basically “telling stories.” I see myself first and foremost as a storyteller. In playwriting, I tell stories through dialogues and characters and in turn these dialogues and characters assist me in telling my stories. My plays can deal with rituals, they can deal with religion, they can deal with culture. They essentially explore social aspects of society and use realistic portrayals of people, so if you say that’s social, I accept it and if you say because the characters are a reflection of reality, that’s also good for me.

ABR: As a playwright, what is your approach to the blank page and your process for starting a new play?

YERIMA: Ideas motivate my foray into the blank page and I think about these ideas for a long time. For my new play The Wooden Pot, I got a phone call about an uncle of mine, saying that he had cursed his family and that’s why they are poor. So I wanted to juxtapose that belief in curses with my own reality as a lecturer in a Christian university. I was also looking at the issue of faith, where is the faith in this issue? Where is love and the role of family? Where is the logic in saying a man cursed his children. And if he did, then where is his own future? What legacy does he leave? This one phone call got me thinking about a host of issues and influenced the story that became The Wooden Pot. But I am also influenced by everything that happens to me, sometimes by past issues that occurred thirty, forty, fifty years ago and when they come back to me in strands, it’s easy to merge them into a story.

The first scene usually takes me the longest to write, once I write the first few words, I ask myself “what is the conflict of the play? What am I talking about”? In my play Hard Ground for example, a boy has just been brought from Yenogoa into Lagos and he didn’t want to be saved. So what is his conflict? Who saved him? Why? He wants to return home, he’s become a militant. I use these conversations to create the rest of the play in my head.
In the first act of Heart of Stone, I wrote about a woman looking for her son, yet I didn’t know why. I had dreamt of my daughter who died many years ago, her ghost was crying and the tears were so real; why would a ghost be crying? And her son, I couldn’t find her son. This inspired that first act and once I could understand the motivation for the idea, it became easier to tell the story.

ABR: Who are some of your influences?

YERIMA: My major influence is Professor Wole Soyinka who was my teacher. He taught me to take plays seriously. I read his plays, especially the early ones like Swamp Dwellers, Lion and The Jewel, Strong Breed; they motivated me while I was in school. His village plays would transport me from Ife where I schooled, to ilu ijinle. I also love Ola Rotimi’s plays and Wale Ogunyemi’s plays. They influenced my two best plays, Song of a Goat and Wedlock of the gods.

I used to think that storytelling had to be romantic, I believed that tampering with my consciousness to bend reality would be enough to create the play. But by the time I started reading Shakespeare and the rules of Aristotle, I began to understand how to shape characters. My teacher in England was also very good, the late John Linstrum, he was quite good, he made me write my post-graduate play called Not My Responsibility which was very funny and he made me play the role of Vasta Dada, a humongous caricature that I wrote into the play, he found it very interesting and I found semblance in his encouragement. The encouragement I got from Soyinka when I wrote Asylum in my second year in university also spurred me to keep writing plays and to read other people’s plays. I read Noel Coward, JP Presley and Harold Pinter, John Arden, and much more.

By that time I started thinking harder about what I wanted to do, and I realized I had to find my own style.

I didn’t want to write like those people, I wanted to write like Ahmed Yerima, I wanted to make my own mistakes because playwriting is a skill.

It’s like driving; my father used to say for every trip you make in a car as a driver, you are a good driver for that trip. Likewise for every play you write and write well, you are a good playwright and so I had to keep writing.

ABR: Based on your experiences as the director of the National Theatre of Nigeria, how would you characterize the theatre’s role in the society today?
Continue reading “Ahmed Yerima: An Interview with the Esteemed African Playwright”

Mission to Kala

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Mission to Kala

Who: Medza

Where: Southern Cameroon

What: Visiting with his cousins at a nearby town, negotiating the differences between village life and the privileges his educated status grants him.

Should I read it: On a rainy night, alcohol recommended.

In Mission to Kala Medza, a college boy, returns to his village in the Southern Cameroons after failing his exams. Expecting to be in trouble (or disgrace), he is surprised when he is lauded as a scholar and granted more prestige than he deserves. Medza is then entrusted with the delicate mission of ‘retrieving’ a man’s wife who has run away to Kala, a neighboring village.

Intriguing about this book is its tone, Medza’s narrative sounds as though it’s being told to university chums over drinks at the country club: carefree and friendly yet peppered with hints of arrogance that, like a hipster’s irony, effectively mask any serious exploration of Medza and the other characters. (It’s important to note that this is a translation from the French Mission Terminée [1957]).

Though he is tasked with negotiating the tensions between traditional values and modernity. His status as an educated person in colonial Cameroon where education is a mystery to many and the educated are viewed as priviledged citizens in their white-ruled country, Medza refuses to tackle this tension. And it is his refusal that makes this book so absurd and intriguing. Medza criticizes a chief for marrying a young girl, yet engages in sexual relations with the same chief’s 15-year-old daughter. He resolutely informs the villagers that his education hasn’t made him special, and that his European classmates are no different from their African counterparts, yet subtly mocks his cousin and friends for their traditional mannerisms.

Perhaps the way he describes his girlfriend-cum-wife-cum-human-tabular-rasa is the most effective way to describe Medza himself,

There was nothing real or concrete about her: her whole person evoked a dream of the ideal, the intangible, the unattainable.

Medza’s stay in Kala is neither success nor failure, his return to his home and eventual abandonment of his responsibilities to his family, does little to elicit empathy from the reader.

Mission to Kala is an ultimately curious book. An exploration of education, the quirks of a Cameroonian village, and the tensions of modernity and tradition lurk deep beneath the surface of Medza’s disengaged narrative, and the reader may find himself/ herself waiting for Medza to regain focus and make his story worth reading.

Mission to Kala by Mongo Beti

African Writers Series |1964 | ISBN: 0435900137

The African Writer and the English Language | Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

In June 1962, there was a writers’ gathering at Makerere, impressively styled: “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression.” Despite this sonorous and rather solemn title, it turned out to be a very lively affair and a very exciting and useful experience for many of us. But there was something which we tried to do and failed—that was to define “African literature” satisfactorily.

Was it literature produced in Africa or about Africa? Could Af­rican literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme? Should it embrace the whole continent or south of the Sahara, or just black Africa? And then the question of language. Should it be in indigenous African languages or should it include Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, and so on?

In the end we gave up trying to find an answer, partly—I should admit—on my own instigation. Perhaps we should not have given up so easily. It seems to me from some of the things have since heard and read that we may have given the impression of not knowing what we were doing, or worse, not daring to look too closely at it.

A Nigerian critic, Obi Wali, writing in Transition 10 said: “Perhaps the most important achievement of the conference … is that Af­rican literature as now defined and understood leads nowhere.”

I am sure that Obi Wali must have felt triumphantly vindicated when he saw the report of a different kind of conference held later at Fourah Bay to discuss African literature and the university curriculum. This conference produced a tentative definition of African literature as follows: “Creative writing in which an Afri­can setting is authentically handled or to which experiences orig­inating in Africa are integral.” We are told specifically that Con­rad’s Heart of Darkness qualifies as African literature while Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter fails because it could have been set anywhere outside Africa.

A number of interesting speculations issue from this definition, which admittedly is only an interim formulation designed to pro­duce an indisputably desirable end, namely, to introduce African students to literature set in their environment. But I could not help being amused by the curious circumstance in which Conrad, a Pole, writing in English could produce African literature while Peter Abrahams would be ineligible should he write a novel based on his experiences in the West Indies.

What all this suggests to me is that you cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition. I do not see African lit­erature as one unit but as a group of associated units—in fact the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures of Africa.

A national literature is one that takes the whole nation for its province and has a realized or potential audience throughout its territory. In other words, a literature that is written in the national language. An ethnic literature is one which is available only to one ethnic group within the nation. If you take Nigeria as an example, the national literature, as I see it, is the literature written in English; and the ethnic literatures are in Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Efik, Edo, Ijaw, etc., etc.

Any attempt to define African literature in terms which over­look the complexities of the African scene at the material time is doomed to failure. After the elimination of white rule shall have been completed, the single most important fact in Africa in the second half of the twentieth century will appear to be the rise of individual nation-states. I believe that African literature will follow the same pattern.

What we tend to do today is to think of African literature as a newborn infant. But in fact what we have is a whole generation of newborn infants. Of course, if you only look cursorily, one infant is pretty much like another; but in reality each is already set on its own separate journey. Of course, you may group them together on the basis of anything you choose—the color of their hair, for instance. Or you may group them together on the basis of the language they will speak or the religion of their fathers. Those would all be valid distinctions, but they could not begin to account fully for each individual person carrying, as it were, his own little, unique lodestar of genes.

Those who in talking about African literature want to exclude North Africa because it belongs to a different tradition surely do not suggest that black Africa is anything like homogeneous. What does Shabaan Robert have in common with Christopher Okigbo or Awoonor-Williams? Or Mongo Beti of Cameroun and Paris with Nzekwu of Nigeria? What does the champagne-drinking upper-class Creole society described by Easmon of Sierra Leone have in common with the rural folk and fishermen of J. P. Clark’s plays? Of course, some of these differences could be accounted for on individual rather than national grounds, but a good deal of it is also environmental.

I have indicated somewhat offhandedly that the national lit­erature of Nigeria and of many other countries of Africa is, or will be, written in English. This may sound like a controversial statement, but it isn’t. All I have done has been to look at the reality of present-day Africa. This “reality” may change as a result of deliberate, e.g., political, action. If it does, an entirely new situation will arise, and there will be plenty of time to examine it. At present it may be more profitable to look at the scene as it is.

What are the factors which have conspired to place English in the position of national language in many parts of Africa? Quite simply the reason is that these nations were created in the first place by the intervention of the British, which, I hasten to add, is not saying that the peoples comprising these nations were in­vented by the British.

The country which we know as Nigeria today began not so very long ago as the arbitrary creation of the British. It is true, as William Fagg says in his excellent new book, Nigerian Images, that this arbitrary action has proved as lucky in terms of African art history as any enterprise of the fortunate Princess of Serendip. And I believe that in political and economic terms too this ar­bitrary creation called Nigeria holds out great prospects. Yet the fact remains that Nigeria was created by the British—for their own ends. Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many things, but it did create big political units where there were small, scattered ones before. Nigeria had hundreds of autonomous communities ranging in size from the vast Fulani Empire founded by Usman dan Fodio in the north to tiny village entities in the east. Today it is one country.

Of course there are areas of Africa where colonialism divided up a single ethnic group among two or even three powers. But on the whole it did bring together many peoples that had hith­erto gone their several ways. And it gave them a language with which to talk to one another. If it failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a tongue, for sighing. There are not many countries in Africa today where you could abolish the language of the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for mutual communication. Therefore those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecks with an eye on the main chance—outside their own countries. They are by-products of the same process that made the new nation-states of Africa.

You can take this argument a stage further to include other countries of Africa. The only reason why we can even talk about African unity is that when we get together, we have a manageable number of languages to talk in—English, French, Arabic.

The other day I had a visit from Joseph Kariuki of Kenya.  Although I had read some of his poems and he had read my novels, we had not met before. But it didn’t seem to matter. In fact I had met him through his poems, especially through his love poem Come Away My Love, in which he captures in so few words the trials and tensions of an African in love with a white girl in Britain:

Come away, my love, from streets

Where unkind eyes divide

And shop windows reflect our difference.

 

By contrast, when in 1960 I was traveling in East Africa and went to the home of the late Shabaan Robert, the Swahili poet of Tanganyika, things had been different. We spent some time talking about writing, but there was no real contact. I knew from all accounts that I was talking to an important writer, but of the nature of his work I had no idea. He gave me two books of his poems, which I treasure but cannot read—until I have learned Swahili.

And there are scores of languages I would want to learn if it were possible. Where am I to find the time to learn the half dozen or so Nigerian languages, each of which can sustain a literature? I am afraid it cannot be done. These languages will just have to develop as tributaries to feed the one central language enjoying nationwide currency. Today, for good or ill, that language is English. Tomorrow it may be something else, although I very much doubt it.

Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the pos­itive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it.

Some time last year I was traveling in Brazil meeting Brazilian writers and artists. A number of the writers I spoke to were con­cerned about the restrictions imposed on them by their use of the Portuguese language. I remember a woman poet saying she had given serious thought to writing in French! And yet their problem is not half as difficult as ours. Portuguese may not have the universal currency of English or French but at least it is the national language of Brazil with her eighty million or so people, to say nothing of the people of Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, etc.

Of Brazilian authors, I have only read, in translation, one novel by Jorge Amado, who is not only Brazil’s leading novelist but one of the most important writers in the world. From that one novel, Cabriella, I was able to glimpse something of the exciting Afro-Latin culture which is the pride of Brazil and is quite unlike any other culture. Jorge Amado is only one of the many writers Brazil has produced. At their national writers’ festival there were liter­ally hundreds of them. But the work of the vast majority will be closed to the rest of the world forever, including no doubt the work of some excellent writers. There is certainly a great advan­tage to writing in a world language.

I think I have said enough to give an indication of my thinking on the importance of the world language which history has forced down our throats. Now let us look at some of the most serious handicaps. And let me say straightaway that one of the most serious handicaps is not the one people talk about most often, namely, that it is impossible for anyone ever to use a second language as effectively as his first. This assertion is compounded of half truth and half bogus mystique. Of course, it is true that the vast majority of people are happier with their first language than with any other. But then the majority of people are not writers. We do have enough examples of writers who have per­formed the feat of writing effectively in a second language. And I am not thinking of the obvious names like Conrad. It would be more germane to our subject to choose African examples.

The first name that comes to my mind is Olauda Equiano, better known as Gustavus Vassa, the African. Equiano was an Ibo, I believe from the village of Iseke in the Orlu division of Eastern Nigeria. He was sold as a slave at a very early age and transported to America. Later he bought his freedom and lived in England.  In 1789 he published his life story, a beautifully written document which, among other things, set down for the Europe of his time something of the life and habit of his people in Africa, in an attempt to counteract the lies and slander invented by some Europeans ­to justify the slave trade.

Coming nearer to our times, we may recall the attempts in the first quarter of this century by West African nationalists to come together and press for a greater say in the management of their own affairs. One of the most eloquent of that band was the Honorable Casely Hayford of the Gold Coast. His presidential ad­dress to the National Congress of British West Africa in 1925 was memorable not only for its sound common sense but as a fine example of elegant prose. The governor of Nigeria at the time was compelled to take notice, and he did so in characteristic style: he called Hayford’s congress “a self-selected and self-appointed congregation of educated African gentlemen.” We may derive some amusement from the fact that British colonial administra­tors learned very little in the following quarter of a century. But at least they did learn in the end—which is more than one can say for some others.

It is when we come to what is commonly called creative lit­erature that most doubt seems to arise. Obi Wali, whose article “Dead End of African Literature” I referred to, has this to say:

until these writers and their Western midwives accept the fact that any true African literature must be written in African languages, they would be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility, uncreativity and frustration.

 

But far from leading to sterility, the work of many new African writers is full of the most exciting possibilities. Take this from Christopher Okigbo’s “Limits”:

Suddenly becoming talkative
like weaverbird
Summoned at offside of
   dream remembered 

Between sleep and waking
I hand up my egg-shells
To you of palm grove,
Upon whose bamboo towers hang
Dripping with yesterupwine
A tiger mask and nude spear…. 

Queen of the damp half light,
   I have had my cleansing.
Emigrant with air-borne nose,
   The he-goat-on-heat.

Or take the poem Night Rain, in which J. P. Clark captures so well the fear and wonder felt by a child as rain clamors on the thatch roof at night, and his mother, walking about in the dark, moves her simple belongings

Out of the run of water

That like ants filing out of the wood

Will scatter and gain possession

Of the floor.

I think that the picture of water spreading on the floor “like ants filing out of the wood” is beautiful. Of course, if you have never made fire with faggots, you may miss it. But dark’s inspi­ration derives from the same source which gave birth to the saying that a man who brings home ant-ridden faggots must be ready for the visit of lizards.

I do not see any signs of sterility anywhere here. What I do see is a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a worldwide language. So my answer to the ques­tion Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask. Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker?  I should say, I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience. I have in mind here the writer who has something new, something different to say. The nondescript writer has little to tell us, anyway, so he might as well tell it in conventional language and get it over with. If I may use an ex­travagant simile, he is like a man offering a small, nondescript routine sacrifice for which a chick, or less, will do. A serious writer must look for an animal whose blood can match the power of his offering.

In this respect Amos Tutola is a natural. A good instinct has turned his apparent limitation in language into a weapon of great strength—a half-strange dialect that serves him perfectly in the evocation of his bizarre world. His last book, and to my mind, his finest, is proof enough that one can make even an imperfectly learned second language do amazing things. In this book, The Feather Woman of the Jungle, Tutola’s superb storytelling is at last cast in the episodic form which he handles best instead of being pain­fully stretched on the rack of the novel.

From a natural to a conscious artist: myself, in fact. Allow me to quote a small example from Arrow of God, which may give some idea of how I approach the use of English. The Chief Priest in the story is telling one of his sons why it is necessary to send him to church:

I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.

Now supposing I had put it another way. Like this, for instance:

I am sending you as my representative among these peo­ple—just to be on the safe side in case the new religion de­velops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight.

The material is the same. But the form of the one is in character and the other is not. It is largely a matter of instinct, but judg­ment comes into it too.

You read quite often nowadays of the problems of the African writer having first to think in his mother tongue and then to translate what he has thought into English. If it were such a simple, mechanical process, I would agree that it was pointless— the kind of eccentric pursuit you might expect to see in a modern Academy of Lagado—and such a process could not possibly pro­duce some of the exciting poetry and prose which is already ap­pearing.

One final point remains for me to make. The real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to. Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling.

But, for me, there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it. I hope, though, that there always will be men, like the late Chief Fagunwa, who will choose to write in their native tongue and ensure that our ethnic literature will flourish side by side with the national ones. For those of us who opt for English, there is much work ahead and much ex­citement.

Writing in the London Observer recently, James Baldwin said:

 

My quarrel with the English language has been that the lan­guage reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter another way…. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.

 

I recognize, of course, that Baldwin’s problem is not exactly mine, but I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but al­tered to suit its new African surroundings.

 

 

The Big Lie

In The Big Lie, Tanya Selvaratnam details how she came to the realization that age isn’t just a number when it comes to fertility. Born in 1971 (11 years after the FDA approved the Pill for contraceptive use and two years before abortion was legalized with Roe v. Wade), Selvaratnam had inherited reproductive freedom, and with it, she argues, the assumption she could wait to get pregnant whenever she felt ready.

When her experience revealed that her advanced age might have influenced her inability to deliver to term, the Harvard grad exercised her reproductive right in a new way—acquiring knowledge. The result is a fastidious survey of the baby-making business; a crash course on American healthcare policy, international adoption, and fertility tourism; a personal story threading statistics, reports, articles, and expert advice like beads.

Through it all, Selvaratnam is diagnosed with cancer and her marriage ends.

As intimate as it is, Selvaratnam’s book also serves as a resource, aimed at opening the door on a global network—and economy—fueled by the desire to have a child.

Selvaratnam says she wrote the book as an admonition to younger women who want children to arm themselves with information about their fertility. “I didn’t learn about this at home, in school, or at my doctor’s office,” she explains. “I found the information on my own… Although infertility is traditionally seen as a female problem, more and more reports are emerging about the man’s role. In fact, infertility cases are evenly accounted for by both male and female factors.”

She argues that while some couples hoping to get pregnant seek affordable treatments in parts of Asia and Africa, the next generation of Africans may find themselves facing infertility challenges as more and more couples postpone childbirth.

…despite having twenty-nine of the world’s thirty-one high-fertility countries…fertility rates are expected to fall by 2030 and possibly below by 2050, due to the rapid economic growth. According to an article in the Economist in 2009, ‘An emergent African middle class is taking out mortgages and moving into newly built flats—and two children is what they want. 

When the fertility rate falls below 2.1, the replacement rate (of people being born versus those dying) can cause an imbalance between the young and old generations, resulting in concerns about whether there are enough people to take care of the aging population and enough new workers to keep the economy going.

 

The Big Lie enters the market at a time when conversations around working families reproductive choices have captured the zeitgeist with renewed intensity. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s instantly viral article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In have influenced the discussion around the challenges women face on the job when planning for a family, and when they become mothers, if they choose to do so.

Selvaratnam represents women who have leaned all the way in—and must now balance career demands with the reality of their biological clocks (if they choose to have children) and the exorbitant costs of assisted reproduction, if necessary. Though she focuses solely on getting pregnant, not the costs of taking care of them, high mortality rates and undeveloped or developing economies of the most reproductive nations, her book is uniquely global in perspective and class-aware, expanding the conversation from privileged women at the highest echelons of society to women with less financial resources who endeavor to navigate the expensive morass of the fertility economy.

The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock by Tanya Selvaratnam

Prometheus Books | 2014 | ISBN: 978-1616148454

Review by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond

NANA EKUA BREW-HAMMOND-headshotNana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of Powder Necklace. Named among the 39 most promising African writers under 39, her work will be featured in the forthcoming anthology Africa39. She blogs at People Who Write.

 

So what? my scars are bigger than yours!- Inua Ellams

The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with Nigerian poet, Inua Ellams, whose poem “Crime and Punishment 3” revolves around a hilarious joke but also underscores Africa as an emerging world power.

ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?

Inua Ellams

ELLAMS: In my first poetry monologue “The 14th Tale,” I wrote about an incident that occurred in secondary school a few months after I arrived in London from Lagos, where I watched the new kid Luis, who’d just arrived from China, who spoke barely a word of English, pee against a wall. We had skipped a lesson and were hiding from teachers in one of the playgrounds in Holland Park School. A conversation broke out on different shapes of excrement (it’s what boys talked about back then) and after laughing, nature called. We lined up to pee against the wall and something curious happen. Whenever I pee (stay with me) I get a tickle, a tremor that travels the length of my spine. Of the four boys who passed urine, only one shivered as I do, as I have always done. Luis. It was a simple, insignificant thing, but to my twelve year old mind, it proved that regardless of race, background, age, culture, Luis and I shared something intensely personal; we were viscerally the same I believed back then. I still believe in the universality of the human experience, I write poetry for that reason, trying to show the many ways we are similar.

ABR: Your poem, “Crime and Punishment 3,” which is a finalist for the Brunel University African Poetry prize, occurs against the background of traditional moonlight tales and seems to suggest a passive struggle between old world hegemonies and emerging African powers.

Can you discuss the inspiration for this poem and post-colonial Africa, Nigeria specifically, as a world power?  Or is this more a commentary on Nigerians who are finding innovative ways (writing a cheque for a dead man) to announce themselves on the world stage and take advantage of its resources?

ELLAMS: The joke came first. I think it was originally an Englishman, a Scott and an Irishman with a dead American colleague and the Irishman walked away with the cash. When I first heard it, I laughed for one whole week and began to realise that the same culture/stereotype dynamic would exist if a Nigerian was to walk with the cash, perhaps even more fitting given our notoriety, so I reset the joke within that context and began telling it at poetry events that attracted a large African clientele, and I’d make the deceased colleague a Ghanaian. It worked, they got the joke and months later, I attempted to write it down as poem.

The poem is a comment on all of the above, but I primarily wrote is as a response to the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative which is actual and growing so rapidly, we can’t keep up with ourselves. Embedded in this narrative is a growing awareness of how we fit on the world stage, who we were, who we have become, why we are, and the various ways we take advantage of those aspects of our identity.

The poem echoes a trend in contemporary African art: the growing bravery and agency to be unapologetic about ourselves; to show our scars (if any) and laugh proudly ‘so what? my scars are bigger than yours!’

ABR:  As a Nigerian poet, how has Nigeria influenced your works?

ELLAMS: I think the strong narrative slant to my work comes from my childhood in Nigeria, the stories I was told and observing my father talk; the way he would gist with his friends over suya and jollof rice, the mythical yet everyday quality to those early years govern the way I write. My father was a Muslim when he married my mother who was a Christian and I grew up following both faiths. This taught me to balance opposing (apparently) faiths, opinions and worlds from an early age and a lot of my work is about balancing truths and lies to tell a greater truth. It is heart breaking to see how things have deteriorated – that I as a child could hold both faiths in mind effortlessly, yet it is causing such havoc in the country.

ABR: Can you talk about your future projects and things you are currently working on?

ELLAMS: I am currently working on three books and three plays. A pamphlet of poems called Crime and Punishment, another called #Afterhours and my first full collection called Of All The Boys Of Plateau Private School. I’m also working on a poetry and basketball project called ‘Spalding Suite’ with a team of five other poets of which I am a contributing editor. I’m working on another poetry/basketball epic called ‘The Half God of Rainfall,’ and finally, working on two versions of the same play. The first, the hour long version is called Fast Cuts and Snapshots and the second, the two hour long version is called Barber Shop Chronicles – both plays explore contemporary African masculinity, globalisation and fatherhood through the lens of barber shops.

Inua Ellams is a Nigerian poet, playwright and performer. He has published two poetry collections, Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars and Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales. His first play The 14th Tale (a one-man, self-performed show) was awarded a Fringe First at the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival, and another play called Black T-Shirt Collection was staged at the Royal National Theatre (UK). He is currently working on new plays and poetry collections.  Follow him on Twitter @InuaEllams.

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal: An Interview With An Ethiopian Poet

The African Book Review met with finalists for The Brunel University African Poetry Prize to discuss their poems, inspirations, and hopes for the future of African Poetry. Here’s our interview with the winner, Liyou Mesfin Libsekal, an Ethiopian poet whose fun poem revolved around the influences of tradition, modernization, and globalization on Ethiopia’s rapid development.

ABR: What inspires you to write poetry and what inspires your poems?

Libsekal: Writing is something that allows me to sort through thoughts and gain some sort of personal understanding. I’m inspired by what is happening around me, by my environment and my own experiences as well as those of others.

Liyou Libsekal

ABR: Your poem “Riding Chinese Machines,” which is a finalist for the Brunel African Poetry prize, juxtaposes motorcycles (‘mechanical beasts’) and lions (‘natural beasts’), to discuss the tensions of modernity and tradition. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for this poem and the process of writing it?

Libsekal: The inspiration for “Riding Chinese Machines” came from observing Addis Ababa at this moment in time; the poem is a result of living in a city that’s in the midst of an economic boom and immense transformation. There is overwhelming infrastructural change, with old roads being broken up, new asphalt roads being laid out, and much much more. So Addis has become a city of detours and congestion, of construction and ever-present foreign machines. That’s where the inspiration came from; from observing roads spotted with massive equipment, workers and operators, from noticing changes in lifestyles and landscape; it’s impossible to be in Addis and not be affected in some way by these projects and progresses and questioning the process is a part of it all.

ABR: As an Ethiopian poet, how has Ethiopia influenced your works, and what do you think the future of poetry in Ethiopia is? What ideally would you like it to be?

Libsekal: Ethiopia is one of the biggest influences in my writing. I’m really an observer so my surroundings are what I draw from. It’s fascinating to witness such intensely visible changes that the country is so rapidly experiencing; there’s a lot of progress and naturally, there are also a lot of problems, there’s so much hope and frustration at the same time. It’s a critical time in our history so it’s impossible to ignore.

ABR: Do you have any favorite African books/ books by African authors? Any that have particularly influenced you or that you just love for some reason?

Libsekal: I read a lot of poetry and Kwesi Brew is among my favorite poets, African or otherwise, simply because his poetry is such a testament to how powerful and relevant the medium is, or can be. I’m really drawn to his work and admire how effective it is in so many ways because his poetry is a reflection of his identity and that really appeals to what I value about poetry.


Liyou Mesfin Libsekal 
 was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and spent the majority of her childhood in different parts of East Africa. She earned a BA in Anthropology from the George Washington University, with a minor in international affairs and a concentration in international development. Liyou found her way back home to Ethiopia after spending a short time in Vietnam. She writes about culture and the changing environment of her rapidly developing country for the Ethiopian Business Review. She’s the winner of the 2014 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Find more of her work here.