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.

Coming of Age in Zimbabwe

The first time I read Nervous Conditions, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga’s seminal first novel, I was an undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis, enrolled in a course on African womanhood (this was in 2004). The course was called “Women in Africa.” Professor Moradewun Adejunmobi taught the course and Nervous Conditions was on the syllabus, along with several other works of African feminist fiction like Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter and Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood.

I began the course with a mixture of curiosity and arrogance. It was my first time taking a course that mentioned me in its title. I am an African woman who grew up in Cameroon. I once was “a woman in Africa.” I once was a girl in Africa. The class had to be about me! And because of this, I felt curious to see what the course could teach me about myself. But I also felt that I already knew a thing or two about African womanhood and wouldn’t be learning anything new.

That course quickly erased my arrogance and amplified my curiosity. The books we read transformed me. I did not just read those books. I inhaled them. I consumed them as if they were pills that had the power to cure me of an illness I suffered from. I was especially taken by Nervous Conditions because, unlike the other novels assigned to us, this novel had a young woman as narrator. I emerged from that course — from those books, especially Nervous Conditions — a changed woman, a woman with a lot of questions about her life.

A few months later, in my very first semester of graduate school at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), I enrolled in a course called “African Women” and was re-united with Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel. I read it a second time and felt the same way I felt the first time I read it. I felt that the book was, in so many ways, about me, about my own family, about our struggles. It’s been ten years since 2004, a decade of living and learning now tucked securely in my past. Today, as I complete my third reading of Nervous Conditions, I am more convinced than ever that this book captures the essence of my life story.

I am Tambu, the main character. I am telling my life story, working my mind around it and through it, trying to understand the things that have happened and are happening to me. I am the girl who is not afraid to fight with her brother, to challenge him when he tells her that he is more worthy of great things. Tambu’s voice is my voice. Tambu’s mind is my mind, trying to impose some order on all that seems senseless. I am Tambu mulling over ideas of feminine decorum and notions of decency, as well as patriarchal status differences between male and female relatives. Tambu’s long, dense paragraphs of fluid prose — narration oftentimes unpunctuated in various places, breathless, hurried — is my prose. I lose myself in Tambu’s words, and I find myself in them, at the same time. I lose myself, because I find myself. I lose my sense of being separate from the narrator. I become the women in the story. I am not only Tambu. I am every woman in her family. Their trials and tribulations are my own.

I am Tambu’s cousin Nyasha. I am Nyasha asking profound and heartbreaking questions, interrogating reality constantly. I am Nyasha challenging male authority, turning patriarchy on its head. I am Nyasha confronting my father, fighting with him. I am pushing against the boundaries of women’s worlds, failing to explode those walls or transcend them, and internalizing my grief and disappointment. I am Nyasha using my mind to try to break out of the varied but similar prisons of gender, race, class, colonialism, patrilineage, and age/generation. I am looking for answers and solutions, reading countless books, becoming mired in a mental bog of facts, histories, injustices, and tragedies. I am the young intellectual immersed in a sanity-annihilating world of extreme academia and perpetual education. I am Nyasha losing her mind.

I am Tambu’s aunt Lucia being bold and fearless. I am Lucia using my voice so confidently that it frightens men; I understand that a woman’s voice is a powerfully liberating instrument. I am Lucia showing that a woman owns her body. But I am also Tambu’s mother, whose body has been given over to her husband and his lineage, and whose older children have been taken away, offered up to the voracious cause of education and a financially secure future for the family. I am Tambu’s other aunt (Ma Chido, married to Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru), whose education and employment and marital status have not been able to assure her of a peaceful life or assure her daughter, Nyasha, of a life safe from physical and psychological harm.

I am all these women, but I am especially the two young women, Tambu and Nyasha. I am these schoolgirls, pursuing their studies passionately. Growing my mind in the classroom and beyond, learning to think for myself. I am a young woman who, having been given the opportunity to become educated, can now prove to myself and a doubting world that I am intelligent, capable, and worthy of greatness. I must believe that I am worthy of freedom, of the chance to choose a life in which my fate is not bound to that of a man or what a man might wish for me. I am free to think and speak for myself, free to build a new way of life for myself–a life I am willing to work hard for, to slave over my books for, and beyond that, a life in which I fight to always perceive reality accurately, a life in which I comprehend the world I live in with clarity. I create a life in which I engage with the struggles of every human being, the struggles of women and Africans–struggles that are individual and collective battles for a full, authentic, and self-determining existence. I fight to be recognized as a human and to be valued as such.

It is a testament to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s phenomenal literary gift that I–a woman from Cameroon — can read her book about a girl in Zimbabwe, feel that it is my story, and draw strength from it. Like the young women in Nervous Conditions, I must (as much as possible) decide what to do with my mind, heart, and body. I must chart the best paths for life. I must learn how to think for myself about men, women, power, and freedom. I must realize that education, as empowering as it may be, is no easy or uncomplicated solution to the problems of gender and social inequality. Ten years ago, Nervous Conditions compelled me to take ownership of my being, and today, it still does. I know what this means. It means that this story is timeless and the struggle for equality is far from over. Women’s words and stories can change the world. Tambu’s voice will continue to transform African women’s lives, one reader at a time.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

978-0954702335| 1997| Lynne Rienner Publishers

Review by Viola Allo

ViolaViola Allo is a Cameroonian-born poet and essayist based in the United States. Her first chapbook of poems, Bird From Africa, is included in the Eight New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set published in 2015 by Akashic Books and the African Poetry Book Fund. Viola resides in California and writes at her blog, Letters to Cameroon.

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

 

 

A Book That Breathes Life Into the Path of Uhuru

“Yesto be great you must stand in such a place that you can dispense pain and death to others without anyone asking questions. Like a headmaster, a judge, a Governor.”

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, set in the days leading up to Kenya’s independence, depicts a cast of characters whose lives are unavoidably impacted by the struggle for independence.

As A Grain of Wheat was first published only four years after the independence, it is important to acknowledge how contemporary this book is to that history. Furthermore, wa Thiong’o himself, who had a brother in the Mau Mau, experienced the path to independence in ways similar to some of his characters.  The book is powerful in and of itself but knowing these facts makes us understand how close the author was to what he writes about and how significant and relevant this novel is.

Wa Thiong’o uses a large cast of characters, weaving together their intricate stories which all show some form of courage and weakness. As their experiences are revealed, it becomes apparent that even the people thought to be the most virtuous, executed some form of betrayal. The beauty of the book however, is that as the story progresses, we begin to be less critical of the characters for these betrayals, and start to understand them.

wa Thiong’o reveals the flaws of those we most want to believe are fully righteous, and the humanity of those we most want to revile.

He blurs the line between “good” and “bad” and allows us comprehend the mistakes and unlikable decisions the characters make for their sakes and for the sake of their cause.

“The coward lived to see his mother while the brave was left dead on the battlefield. And to ward off a blow is not cowardice.” (168)

Through these characters we ultimately learn that independence was not just the violent, turbulent time we read in history books, but was a human fight, as internal as it was external. The characters grapple so fiercely with themselves because they have been severely tainted by their circumstance, and have internalized it such that there is no real separation between their personal and political lives.

“It is not politics…it is life. Is he a man who lets another take away his land and freedom? Has a slave life?” (112).

In A Grain of Wheat, wa Thiong’o ultimately breathes life into the path to Uhuru, a path that is real and complex and reflective of innate humanity. When we see the personalities and pasts of the characters, we see the struggle and the triumph, and the struggle within the triumph during this pivotal time.

A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Penguin Modern Classics |2002| ISBN:978-0-14-118699-3

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

Graceland

“This is the kola nut. This seed is a star. This star is life. This star is us. The lgbo hold the kola nut to be sacred, offering it at every gathering and to every visitor, as a blessing, as refreshment, or to seal a covenant. The prayer that precedes the breaking and sharing of the nut is: He who brings kola, brings life. 

In present-day Lagos, Elvis is suspended between the haunting memory of his dead mother, his father’s beatings, and the irresistible temptation of a life of crime alongside his friends; Redemption, Innocent, Sunday and Comfort, in a Nigerian version of Hades, an obscure and dangerous underworld.

Oscillating between his past and his present dreams fed by American cinema and music, the novel follows Elvis’s coming-of-age in a place where few things are as they seem.

Abani’s mixture of contemporary Nigerian slang, sharp descriptions and enchanting echoes of the illo tempore Igbo kola ritual creates a maze of sensations, making vivid Elvis’s haunting memories and daydreams about the Promised Land of America.

And yet, in spite of this obscure world where people struggle constantly to make a living, Abani’s writing displays an attachment to human values which are bound to prevail in the end. Courage, tolerance, love are the only weapons in Elvis’ world, the only escape, the only way to follow his dream.

Graceland is a literary masterpiece in which the power of words and creation win over the dark side of human nature; although Elvis has to cross through the black river of the world’s atrocities to become a man, Abani’s ultimate message is one of hope and tolerance- what else, since Abani calls himself “a zealot of optimism”?

Graceland by Chris Abani

Picador | 2005 | ISBN: 978-0312425289

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.

 

 

The Art of Conversation: An Interview With Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe’s timbre is a delightful mix of soft-spoken insight and passionate ideals. A conversation becomes an art form as Ndibe incorporates stories, anecdotes (and advice) to exemplify a point. My interview with Ndibe about his new book, Foreign Gods, Inc., seemed like an evening spent eavesdropping on the rich art of conversation between Nigerians from a different age whose words carry history, passion and an uncanny understanding of the possibilities of the future. – Etinosa. 

Okey Ndibe
Okey Ndibe

ABR: Where did the idea for Foreign Gods, Inc., originate?

NDIBE: Many years ago a cousin of mine told me that the statue of a deity from my town had gone missing and just reappeared after a week or two. And I was intrigued. I wondered who could have taken it…when I don’t understand something, I think of it in terms of a story as a way of making sense of it. As I thought about the missing deity I said, ‘wow it would be good to do a story about this.’ The story I originally wanted to write was that perhaps members of an evangelical Christian group had been urged by their pastor to steal and destroy the deity…but living in America and seeing wealthy Americans buy things that are African which they consider primitive and exotic and desirable in that sense (because people like to harvest their fascination with what they think is out there), I thought about adding a gallery in a place like New York City, that buys and sells statues of gods from around the world.  And that’s how the idea grew.

ABR: There is a deeply rooted religious tension between the Christian fundamentalists and traditional worshipers in the story. Is this reflective of modern Nigeria?

NDIBE: Oh yes. The tension is a long one and is still very much there. There was a military governor who was a Christian and set about burning shrines of deities. He said they were demonic centers and there was no place for them under the state he governed. More recently, there is a phenomenon amongst our people who, because they’ve become Christian, change names that their families have borne, especially last names. So you find someone with ‘Ogun’ [a traditional Yoruba God] in his name changing it to ‘Oluwa’ [the Yoruba name for the Christian God]…he doesn’t want to be beholden to Ogun…. So there is that pervasive superstitious regime that is taking a hold in Nigeria and I think a lot of Pastors exploit that kind of superstition in a country where things are already extremely difficult.

ABR: It’s also interesting how much history is being wiped away and rejected when a person with the last name ‘Ogun’ changes it to ‘Oluwa.’

NDIBE: Yes. The people of Ike’s town have a rich and enduring memory of their deity. They know its origins. They know that it was born to strengthen their war prowess and ability to defend themselves. So that memory is there. And it’s very strong. And even though we don’t have written records, the memory of past lineages is always there…There are always people within a village who can tell you the story of the village, the background to its spiritual customs and the justification for certain practices. That memory is always fascinatingly present when I return to my home town.

I used to sneak into the shrine of a deity in my town to listen to the chief priest perform invocations especially when people came to seek favors from the deity or thank him for the things (real or perceived) that he had done. And the priest used to say to the deity in eloquent Igbo, “You said that your followers should not share. That they should scramble…fight for things, we are in that fight.” I thought that the deity stipulated this fight because there was enough for everybody, but when I asked a devotee what the phrase meant, he told me that in the days of yore from time to time the deities would have a feast. And when they got to the feast, sacrifices would be made because deities eat just as humans eat. The deity from my town was so convinced of his own power that he suggested the gathered deities fight for the food instead of sharing it, because he was confident he would get the most food. So what I thought was a theological issue for his followers actually had a sort of ethical, historical background.

ABR: And it reflects on his followers that this is the god they have chosen to serve. 

NDIBE: Right. And Ike falls into that rough theology because though he could make a living from driving cabs, he wants something more. So in the end he goes from gambling to the ultimate gamble …stealing a god.

ABR: Ike’s personality seems to change between Nigeria and America. In America he feels alienated because he apparently doesn’t have the right accent but as soon as he gets to Nigeria he is more confident, correcting others’ grammar. Is that change reflective of the African immigrant’s experience in America?

NDIBE: Ike has been changed profoundly by America but hasn’t yet come to terms with the meaning of the changes that he has undergone, so he is acting in ways that are deeply ironic. On some level he thinks ‘I have done what America expects of me. I have an excellent degree; I have gone to a great school, so America has to deliver on its own promise.’ Then America introduces this new ingredient, ‘When you speak, you reveal yourself to be foreign…and even if you are foreign we don’t want you to be this foreign.’  So he’s upset that America is selling things [the American dream] to people, but suddenly remembers that he has an accent when it comes to offering him a job…but consistent with that complexity in his character, he is extremely close to his uncle yet is willing to steal the man’s deity.

ABR: The women of the novel seem to have a joint mania whether it’s religious like Ike’s mother or sexual like his girlfriend in New York. There’s also a joint passivity that women like Regina possess and I wondered about that.

NDIBE: In Regina’s case, I particularly wanted to tell that story… I am aware of a particular trend were if a woman loses her husband, especially if he has money, the man’s family will accuse her of being responsible for her husband’s death and chase her off her bequest. So I wanted to bring out that issue out.

ABR: To what extents are stories like Regina’s still present and relevant?

NDIBE: I would say to a large extent…men still have this idea of ‘the privilege of being a man.’ And when the woman says “Look you’ve got to help to clean the house, you’ve got to help change diapers,” some men who have this sense that they’ve married a wife to serve them, think ‘wow I can’t marry you and come and be your wife.’ But Regina was compelled to marry her husband on account of his wealth. And that’s the bargain she’s invested in…[a] relationship defined by that wealth… So I was cautious when writing that, I wanted to give her some power because that’s the kind of woman I’d like to see, but I also know of too many women who simply don’t have the resources within traditional society to sustain them in that kind of situation. But clearly, it’s also a way of pointing out a situation that needs to be addressed, that we need to take into account the full humanity of our women.

ON BIAFRA & NIGERIA

ABR: When you were young you experienced the war on the side of Biafra. What was that was like from a child’s perspective?

NDIBE: I’ve written a few essays on the war. I was born in Yola, the current capital of Adamawa state. I spoke better Hausa than I did Igbo at the time the war started when my father sent us to our hometown with my mother. And in the 30 months of the war with the bombardment of the sentiment that the Northerners who were killing us were evil and with the inability to speak Hausa to anybody, I lost Hausa completely. So that becomes a sort of price that one has paid.

But you can also imagine as a child the incessant rumble of fighter jets that really shook the ground in their speed, sometimes they seemed to come so close to the ground and you saw the bombs coming out of them and then you heard the incredible explosions. The bunkers in which we were sometimes thrown or the banana trees under which we sometimes had to duck… It does things… people have said to me that they are surprised I have a sense of humor and that I am emotionally stable and so on. And a lot of my friends who went through the war adjusted. I don’t know how we did that. I imagine that there were kids who paid the great price, but somehow we were able to come out of it and adjust.

On one occasion I was fetching firewood with my siblings and other friends when an enemy jet flew very close and as we all fell to the ground, looking up ahead, it seemed to be hovering over the place where we lived. We saw the bombs coming out, heard deafening detonations and we were so scared because we thought it had landed in our house, we thought our parents would be dead. When we came out, our parents were still alive and worried for us because they thought we had perished.  It turned out the bombs had fallen near the place where we went to school.

I’ve also recounted the story of standing in line with my parents to get food and a man standing a few paces in front of us just collapsed, wobbled to the ground. People surrounded him and took him out, and I sort of remember my parents blocking me with their bodies to prevent me from looking. Also the images of children with bloated heads and tiny stomachs…the effect on a child of not having enough food to eat and being afraid to ask, and of hunting lizards which we roasted and ate and so on…even then we didn’t have enough of the flesh of the lizard to eat. It’s….it…was scary.… It was as if the world could come to an end at any moment and you had no control over when it would happen.

ABR: What and how was the process of integrating into ‘Nigerian’ society after the war. 

NDIBE: It was a messy and complicated process. First, I think there was fundamentally an injustice in a people saying ‘Nigeria is an unjust space and we don’t want to belong to it’ and the rest of Nigeria saying ‘no you can’t leave.’ And then when they returned, the government says to them ‘The assets that you left in Nigerian banks when you ran, whatever it was, you’re going to get only £20′ and told people in many parts of the country that the properties they owned were considered abandoned and in some cases people were compensated but in a lot of cases, highly connected and powerful people just took over those houses.

But there were always people who acted heroically. With moral decency. I’ve told the story of the Lamido of Admawa who saved my father. He happened to be passing in his convoy by the post office where my father worked and saw a mob gathered breaking down the door because my father and the other staff had barricaded it and were hiding in the post office from the mob. And the Lamido asked the mob outside what was going on and they said ‘there are some heathens that we want to collect and kill.’ The Lamido rebuked them and sent them away, he collected my father and the other workers and kept them in his home for about three weeks until things calmed down, after which he took them to the river Benue and put them on a boat to the South-East.  And when I went to talk to him in 2008, I asked him why he did that and he said
“I did it because I am a true Muslim. And as a true Muslim it was my duty to ensure that innocent blood was not spilled under my watch.”
And there were lots of people, Yoruba and Hausa and from other ethnicities who preserved the homes abandoned by Igbo landlords, who even collected rent on their behalf and kept those rents in trust and turned the money over to the Igbo owners at the end of the war. But the Nigerian government’s official policy was that those properties were abandoned.

ABR: The Biafran war was highly covered by foreign media, but not many post-war narratives have emerged about it. Gen. Odumegwu Ojukwu especially, died without producing an official account of the war from his perspective. Why is there a reluctance to talk about it?

NDIBE:  I think there is a certain reticence that comes from being a ‘defeated people.’ The narrative of defeat, however just your idea of the war is, remains a difficult narrative to put together. I think that’s one thing. I also think that quite simply, the continuing injustices in Nigeria account for part of the paucity of narratives about the war. You get the sense that the country that compelled Biafra to remain part of Nigeria is absolutely reluctant to address the injustices that triggered the war to start with, and people don’t know where they stand… the war is still an emotional thing.

Having said that I think there are also quite a few books that have been written and more will be written but because of the nature of the publishing industry in Nigeria, those books are not easily accessible…that ought to change. We should have indigenous local publishers producing books about the Biafran war and then the extraordinary product of this endeavor would inevitably make it to the international market.

ABR: What do you want readers to take away from Foreign Gods, Inc.?

NDIBE: I don’t like to be prescriptive but I hope that any reader whether Nigerian, African, American or European will turn the last page of the book and say “this is a good story.” I think the art of storytelling is under siege. In contemporary fiction there is a certain fixation with linguistic dance and performance that is not wedded to a story. So I’d like my readers to say “Even if I would have wanted a different kind of outcome, I was engaged by the story.”

Okey Ndibe is the author of Foreign Gods, Inc. Born in Yola, Nigeria, he earned an MFA in fiction and a PhD from the University of Massachusetts. His first novel, Arrows of Rain, was published under the esteemed African Writers Series. He is a visiting professor of African and African Diaspora literatures at Brown University. 

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

IMG_20131113_111232
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 Mother In a Refugee Camp by Chinua Achebe (excerpt)

Achebe 1This a wonderful excerpt from a poem by Chinua Achebe. The poem is centered around a mother in a refugee camp, most likely during the Biafran war. The link between the past and present and the way war ruptures this is focused so articulately in the mother’s actions, combing her son’s hair. The foreshadowing, ‘like putting flowers on a tiny grave,’ anchors the poem rendering it heartbreaking yet somehow full of hope. Most people know Achebe as a great writer, not necessarily as a poet but his collection of poetry in Collected Poems by Chinua Achebe is a brilliant, tender, and humorous exploration of a range of topics many centered around the effects of war in Biafra, colonialism in Nigeria, and the poets own observations on life.