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”

Reading Africa | Etinosa Agbonlahor

We don’t whisper here
We sigh, we gasp, we moan
We cry, we shout, we groan
No, we don’t whisper here.
-Segun Akinlolu, Can’t You See?

As the child of academics growing up in Nigeria, I was introduced to books at a young age. My first book was a paper-thin story about a corn princess and ants. As I grew older I read more books, mostly European and American; Judy Blume’s novels, The Babysitters Club, Enid Blyton’s mysteries, stories in which curly-haired little girls yelped ‘Golly!’ and sucked on lollies in the summer (in Nigeria, we had Fan-Ice. I testify it was just as good).

However, the stories I remember most were those set in other parts of Africa. Books such as The Boy Slave by Kola OnadipeAn African Night’s Entertainment by Cyprain Ekwensi,Without a Silver Spoon by Eddie Iroh, and many other books within the African Readers Series. They taught me about other aspects of different Nigerian ethnicities and the African world at my doorstep, stories from Kenya, Cotonou, Sierra Leone, etc., full of house boys who retained their integrity in the face of poverty, slaves who became kings, queens who defended their kingdoms in lieu of kings, greedy waziris’ whose greed led to their downfall, cryptic stories about the crafty tortoise, and so on. These were the stories in which I encountered my first notions of Africa.

Literature is how we document our lives, fictionalized stories often reveal truths and subjective experiences that other sources cannot. Learning about the Rwandan genocide in school was so much different than reading Murambi, The Book of Bones by Boubacar Boris Diop, which gave me an inside look at the genocide, the forces at work that caused it, the fears and that characterized that period. At the start of Europe’s ‘civilizing’ mission in Africa (read: colonization, slavery, mass violence, and theft of culture), great steps were taken to erase any ideas of Africans as a people with history or methods of conveying that history (see: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad). Today, the world knows more about Africa, we know about her peoples, we know her history before colonization and slavery. At the same time, Africa is still constantly presented as a victim; the lovable yet inevitably doomed junior brother of the world. A classmate once suggested that while she knew South Africa was a well developed country, the other African tribes were still struggling, (Nigerians riding Bugattis in Abuja beg to differ). The thread of discourse that has coded Africa in a specific light of backwardness and victimization still exists today.

African writers therefore have an important job to do. They bear the burden (as do all Africans) of reintroducing Africa to the world, through our literature and arts. We need to tell our own stories, to show the world our experiences of what it means to be African, and overcome tales of victimization and backwardness the world consistently hands us.

More importantly, Africans need to start discovering other Africans through our literature. The average Nigerian knows less about Ghana than he does about London, and we are only two countries apart! Imagine the discourse that could come out of Africans actively engaging with Africans. Discovering what it means to be a certain kind of African, what it means to be an Egyptian, an Edo girl from Nigeria, a Tunisian elder, realizing our shared struggles and goals which too often are the same soul masked in different clothes. Imagine having great African literature that is notable, not because it has been deemed appropriate or illustrious by European editors or American critics, but because other Africans have engaged with it, argued about it, and ultimately decided that it in some way captures an experience that resonates with them all.

To Africans and everyone else reading, this is the takeaway: it’s important to present Africa, not as the slighted and reduced victim of the world, but as the complex, impossibly diverse, confusing, exciting and altogether human world we grew up in. But it’s more important to discover life outside of our respective countries within our shared continent, to truly be Africans in discourse with other Africans through their literature.

We can’t all pen masterful novels, we probably will not write the next Things Fall Apart, but we can all read. There is a dearth of African literature on bookshelves both in Africa and elsewhere, but that cannot stop us from engaging with what is available. Read Africa. Find anthologies on African literature, read those excerpts then find full novels from the excerpts that caught your interest. Read them, read more by the same authors, then read others. One story often will lead to another. Find and read Chimamanda Adichie’s stories,Maps by Nuruddin FarahChris Abani’s Grace Land, Ben Okri’s work, Nardine Gradner’s novels, The Persistence of Memory by Tony Eprile, Frank Chipasula’s poems, etc. Read and read and read. Dive into the experiences of other Africans, then add your voice to that discourse, talk about the books you’ve read with other people, ask questions about the countries you’re reading. Engage with Africa in a way different from those dictated by BBC and CNN. Make Africa, the whole continent, your Africa.

We are the beginning
Of our own tears
And the end
Of all our joys.
Segun Akinlolu, The Real Story of Our Lives

Originally published on Africa is Done Suffering. 

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. 

 

Americanah | Guest Review by Somto Ibe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

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

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

Redefining Poetry: An Interview With Alessandro De Francesco.

Alessandro De Francesco

As an artist, Alessandro De Francesco seeks to redefine our approach to life. His poems both illuminate and obscure. What emerges from this is an unrestricted multidimensional art that imitates life itself, rejecting interpretation while pulling the viewer into an intense swirling dance, each step affording insight that underscores the fullness of the dance. To engage with De Francesco’s work is to discard our clumsy pedestrian need to understand and embrace instead, the experience of the dance and the infinite spaces it leads us.

ABR: Most people view poetry through a purely literary lens, reading, listening and attempting to understand or make a text poem relevant to the self. What inspired you to expand that vision? And what inspired your unique approach to poetry?

De Francesco: Yes, I don’t think that poetry is a matter of understanding or communicating, nor is it a direct expression of the self. 
In my opinion poetry is a matter of experience. As you know, poïein in ancient Greek means “to do,” and Dichtung, the German word for poetry, belongs to the semantical field of “density.” So my approach to poetry comes from the making, the density of the experience, and the –sometimes-painful though always joyful – opening to the real. 
Why can’t all this be called an expression of the self? Because this experience multiplies the identity and deconstructs the fictional unity of the subject, that is to say its psychological, social, racial, ideological (etc.) rigidity. Poetry performs a multiplication of the subject towards what the Italian poet Antonio Porta called a “field of tensions”. The self is no more a reflexive unity, but an infinite field of tensions in the flux of experience.

ABR: So poetry and the process of making poetry helps destabilize the notion that each person is one single identity who fits into various social constructs e.g. An Algerian woman, a short man, etc.?

De Francesco: Poetry, or at least good poetry, invites a certain collectivity to make a real and perceptual experience of language. That is why it is not a question of understanding: we have to get rid of this rigid hermeneutical cliché according to which poetry, and especially modern poetry, is obscure. It is not obscure if, as Stéphane Mallarmé stated, we don’t read a poem as we read the newspaper, but rather read to change the reading perspective. Maybe this is what really distinguishes poetry from fiction. For the same reason, poetry is not a matter of communication, because in order to communicate we have to suppose the existence of a codified language. This codified language can be stupid, like in advertising and mass-media politics, or very important, like in the verbal communication between lovers, friends, patient and therapist, you and me in this interview, etc. But whether bad or good, communication doesn’t have a particular relation to poetry. Poetry makes something different, it radically and permanently disrupts the codes in order to produce what I call an alter-legibility and an alter-sayability of language. To sum up what I am trying to say: what inspired my approach to poetry, and I would even say my choice to try to be a poet, is a parallel cognitive and political anxiety against formatted linguistic codes and narratives.

AUGMENTED WRITING – AW0_1 (2013)

ABR: How would you describe the goals of Augmented writing? What are you trying to achieve with such works?

De Francesco: With Augmented Writing I try to create a new language art device, where what I called the alter-legibility and the alter-sayability of the experience of thinking, writing and reading are in a way revealed in their primary matter and chaotic, layered form. Augmented Writing has several sections and purposes but all its different articulations converge towards creating a sort of new literary genre that is able to recreate, redefine and criticize the amount of perceptual data and thoughts we are immersed in everyday… video games, smartphones, 3D cinema, google-glasses, Facebook, but also, mass-media information. All these aim to produce a codified, normalized and pre-defined image of reality on one hand and of our identity on the other hand.

ABR: So things like Facebook, movies, news sources and so on present us with a single ‘normal’ way to view the world and ourselves?

De Francesco: Mass-media information, for example, gives a codified representation of a series of events, selecting information and reorienting a fictional “post-experience” as close as possible to when the event occurred. And it’s strangely easy to forget that this representation is often shaped by a certain ideology and/or by the pressures exerted by this or that form of power.

Augmented Writing is itself modified, perturbed and reshaped by such technologies and narratives, so that this device aims to give a poetical form to the vulnerable status of language in the era of representation.

I used the term language art. In that sense a major purpose of Augmented Writing is also to massively bring text and language again into contemporary art and, by the same token, to make a contemporary art audience aware of the possibilities of language and poetry as powerful artistic devices to question the realm of image and representation. Continue reading “Redefining Poetry: An Interview With Alessandro De Francesco.”

Dennis Brutus- A Simple Lust- The African Book Review
Dennis Brutus- A Simple Lust- The African Book Review

Here’s a poem by Dennis Brutus about the changing of seasons from Autumn to Winter. This is the perfect season to curl up with a mug of hot cocoa or coffee and read an African book! Tell us what you’re reading this season!

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Sefi Atta: An Interview with a Leading Nigerian Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bit of Difference

Who: Deola Bello

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

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

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

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

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

A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta

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

Read our interview with Sefi Atta here.

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

We wish to inform you…

Who: Rwanda, 1994.

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

Should I read it: Yes.

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

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

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

Pcador | 1999 | ISBN: 9780312243357