Bye-Bye Barbar | Taiye Selasi

[Reblogged from The Lip]

Taiye Selasi

It’s moments to midnight on Thursday night at Medicine Bar in London. Zak, boy-genius DJ, is spinning a Fela Kuti remix. The little downstairs dancefloor swells with smiling, sweating men and women fusing hip-hop dance moves with a funky sort of djembe. The women show off enormous afros, tiny t-shirts, gaps in teeth; the men those incredible torsos unique to and common on African coastlines. The whole scene speaks of the Cultural Hybrid: kente cloth worn over low-waisted jeans; ‘African Lady’ over Ludacris bass lines; London meets Lagos meets Durban meets Dakar. Even the DJ is an ethnic fusion: Nigerian and Romanian; fair, fearless leader; bobbing his head as the crowd reacts to a sample of ‘Sweet Mother’.

Were you to ask any of these beautiful, brown-skinned people that basic question – ‘where are you from?’ – you’d get no single answer from a single smiling dancer. This one lives in London but was raised in Toronto and born in Accra; that one works in Lagos but grew up in Houston, Texas. ‘Home’ for this lot is many things: where their parents are from; where they go for vacation; where they went to school; where they see old friends; where they live (or live this year). Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.

They (read: we) are Afropolitans – the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic or two, we understand some indigenous tongue and speak a few urban vernaculars. There is at least one place on The African Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.

It isn’t hard to trace our genealogy. Starting in the 60’s, the young, gifted and broke left Africa in pursuit of higher education and happiness abroad. A study conducted in 1999 estimated that between 1960 and 1975 around 27,000 highly skilled Africans left the Continent for the West. Between 1975 and 1984, the number shot to 40,000 and then doubled again by 1987, representing about 30% of Africa’s highly skilled manpower. Unsurprisingly, the most popular destinations for these emigrants included Canada, Britain, and the United States; but Cold War politics produced unlikely scholarship opportunities in Eastern Bloc countries like Poland, as well.

Some three decades later this scattered tribe of pharmacists, physicists, physicians (and the odd polygamist) has set up camp around the globe. The caricatures are familiar. The Nigerian physics professor with faux-Coogi sweater; the Kenyan marathonist with long legs and rolled r’s; the heavyset Gambian braiding hair in a house that smells of burnt Kanekalon. Even those unacquainted with synthetic extensions can conjure an image of the African immigrant with only the slightest of pop culture promptings: Eddie Murphy’s ‘Hello, Barbar.’ But somewhere between the 1988 release of Coming to America and the 2001 crowning of a Nigerian Miss World, the general image of young Africans in the West transmorphed from goofy to gorgeous. Leaving off the painful question of cultural condescenscion in that beloved film, one wonders what happened in the years between Prince Akeem and Queen Agbani?

One answer is: adolescence. The Africans that left Africa between 1960 and 1975 had children, and most overseas. Some of us were bred on African shores then shipped to the West for higher education; others born in much colder climates and sent home for cultural re-indoctrination. Either way, we spent the 80’s chasing after accolades, eating fufu at family parties, and listening to adults argue politics. By the turn of the century (the recent one), we were matching our parents in number of degrees, and/or achieving things our ‘people’ in the grand sense only dreamed of. This new demographic – dispersed across Brixton, Bethesda, Boston, Berlin – has come of age in the 21st century, redefining what it means to be African. Where our parents sought safety in traditional professions like doctoring, lawyering, banking, engineering, we are branching into fields like media, politics, music, venture capital, design. Nor are we shy about expressing our African influences (such as they are) in our work. Artists such as Keziah Jones, Trace founder and editor Claude Gruzintsky, architect David Adjaye, novelist Chimamanda Achidie – all exemplify what Gruzintsky calls the ‘21st century African.’
What distinguishes this lot and its like (in the West and at home) is a willingness to complicate Africa – namely, to engage with, critique, and celebrate the parts of Africa that mean most to them. Perhaps what most typifies the Afropolitan consciousness is the refusal to oversimplify; the effort to understand what is ailing in Africa alongside the desire to honor what is wonderful, unique. Rather than essentialising the geographical entity, we seek to comprehend the cultural complexity; to honor the intellectual and spiritual legacy; and to sustain our parents’ cultures.

For us, being African must mean something. The media’s portrayals (war, hunger) won’t do. Neither will the New World trope of bumbling, blue-black doctor. Most of us grew up aware of ‘being from’ a blighted place, of having last names from to countries which are linked to lack, corruption. Few of us escaped those nasty ‘booty-scratcher’ epithets, and fewer still that sense of shame when visting paternal villages. Whether we were ashamed of ourselves for not knowing more about our parents’ culture, or ashamed of that culture for not being more ‘advanced’ can be unclear. What is manifest is the extent to which the modern adolescent African is tasked to forge a sense of self from wildly disparate sources. You’d never know it looking at those dapper lawyers in global firms, but most were once supremely self-conscious of being so ‘in between’. Brown-skinned without a bedrock sense of ‘blackness,’ on the one hand; and often teased by African family members for ‘acting white’ on the other – the baby-Afropolitan can get what I call ‘lost in transnation’.

Ultimately, the Afropolitan must form an identity along at least three dimensions: national, racial, cultural – with subtle tensions in between. While our parents can claim one country as home, we must define our relationship to the places we live; how British or American we are (or act) is in part a matter of affect. Often unconsciously, and over time, we choose which bits of a national identity (from passport to pronunciation) we internalize as central to our personalities. So, too, the way we see our race – whether black or biracial or none of the above – is a question of politics, rather than pigment; not all of us claim to be black.

Read Full Article at The Lip. 

 

Ghana: For Bessie Head | Ama Ata Aidoo

To begin with

there’s the small problem of address:

calling you
by the only name some of us
knew you by,

hailing you by titles
you could not possibly
have cared for,

referring you to
strange and clouded
origins that eat into
our past our pain
like prize-winning cassava tubers in
abandoned harvest fields…

Some of us never ever met you.

And who would believe
that but those who know
the tragedies of our land
where
non-meetings,
visions unopening and other such
abortions are
every day reality?

To continue a
confession of sorts,

‘Miss Head’ will just not do
‘Bessie’ too familiar
Bessie Head,

your face swims into focus
through soft clouds of
cigarette smoke and from behind the
much much harder barriers erected by some
quite unbelievable
20th. century philosophy,

saying more of
your strength
than all the tales
would have us think.

For the moment,

we fear and
dare not accept that
given how things
are,

poetry almost becomes
dirges and
not much more.

But
we hold on to knowing
ourselves as daughters of
darklight women
who are so used to Life
– giving it
feeding it –

Death
was always
quite unwelcome;
– taking them by surprise –
an evil peevish brat
to be flattered,
cleaned
oiled
pomaded
over-dressed and perfumed…

We fear to remember:
fatigued as we are by so much
death and dying and
the need to bury and
to mourn.

Bessie Head:
such a fresh ancestress!

If you chance
on a rainy night
to visit,

if you chance
on a sunny day
to pass by,

look in to see
– how well we do
– how hard we fight
– how loud we scream

against the plots
– to kill our souls our bodies too
– to take our land, and
– feed us shit.

Come
benevolently,
Dear Fresh Spirit,

that rejoining
The Others,
you can tell them
now more than ever,

do we need
the support
the energy

to create
recreate and
celebrate…

nothing more
absolutely
nothing less.

 

Ama Ata Aidoo (originally Christina Ama Aidoo) was born in Abeadzi Kyiakor, in south central Ghana. She grew up in the Fanti royal household, and attended the Wesley Girl’s High School in Cape Coast from 1961 to 1964. In 1964, she enrolled at the University of Ghana in Legon, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English. Many of her works explore the tension between Western and African world views, and the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. She has also authored several children’s books.

The African Book Review is posting a poem from each of Africa’s 55 countries over the next few weeks. Poem suggestions can be sent through the comments form below. ‘Like’ us on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr to read all the poems.

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)
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)

Sefi Atta: An Interview with a Leading Nigerian Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bit of Difference

Who: Deola Bello

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

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

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

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

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

A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta

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

Read our interview with Sefi Atta here.

Ghana Must Go, A Novel

Ghana Must Go

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

Why: Failure, Success, Expectations, Betrayal.

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

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

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

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Penguin Press| 2013| ISBN: 978-1594204494