On books with lots of characters

On the Bookworm podcast, host Michael Silverblatt discusses Ann Beattie’s new book A Wonderful Stroke of Luck:

When I meet a lot of characters in a book and I don’t know them, I write down their names, so that when I see them again, I’m going to recognize them. This holds true for Pynchon as much as it holds true for Ann Beattie. And yet, people are writing about A Wonderful Stroke of Luck: “I can’t remember where I first met these characters.” Well, you have a pencil and a piece of paper. These characters are being very methodically laid out so that you can see how they make the mistakes they make in the world and how those mistakes need to be corrected if these characters are to become adults.

This evening I was listening to the audiobook of Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, which encompasses generations and reintroduces members of its sprawling cast of characters at unexpected moments. I thought, Wow, I’m having trouble keeping track of all these characters. And then I thought: Well, you have a pencil and a piece of paper!


Development Economics in 20 minutes to high schoolers: This time with chocolate!

Two years ago I posted about a presentation I made to middle schoolers (seventh-graders, to be specific) on economic development.

This week I was asked to give a 15-20 minute presentation to a youth group of 14 and 15-year olds. Everyone seemed engaged, and they asked good questions. Here’s what I did.

1. I showed them the world’s income distribution using relatively recent data from Pew.

1 who has the money

2. Since it was clear I was going to focus on income — we had a short discussion of why money was important and what kinds of important things money could buy. After they shared their ideas, I listed a few, but they had already proposed many more.

2 what can money buy

3. Based on the income distribution data, I put each person in the room somewhere in the income distribution. I opened up an Excel sheet where I could enter the number of people in the room, and I had programmed it to — as I listed the name of each person in the room — assign them to an income group so that when I finished everyone in the room, it would reflect the global income distribution.

3 where do you fall

Then, to make it a little more concrete (and fun!), I distributed chocolate based on youth’s assigned income groups. So the upper-middle income youth got a chocolate bar, the middle income people got mini chocolate bars, the low income people got Hershey’s Kisses, and the the poor person got a single Hershey’s Dot (about the size of an M&M). [I actually forgot the Kisses, but that was how it was supposed to work.] If you’re budget conscious, like I am, I was able to finance the whole thing for a few dollars at a discount store.

4. I showed examples — using pictures from Dollar Street — of what households in each income group might look like. We talked about the housing materials.

5. Extreme poverty has fallen dramatically, but there are still nearly 800 million people in the world who are extremely poor. So there’s a long way to go. (Thanks to Our World in Data for the figure!)

5 falling poverty

6. I talked through two sides to development economics, the macro (how can poor countries grow prosperous?) and the micro (how can poor individuals and families exit poverty and enjoy prosperity?).

6 devt economists

7. I asked them what they think makes a country grow? After they shared some ideas, I talked briefly about four types of capital.

7 what makes grow

8. I talked about three specific projects that I’ve worked on: (a) how Rwanda can get on a rapid growth path, (b) how Tanzania can implement an effective safety net, and (c) the economic impact of the Ebola epidemic of 2014.

9. I talked a little bit about where my work has taken me. (Blue indicates conferences and seminar. Green indicates a research project or policy discussions.)

9 where to go

10. Finally, I talked about both my path to become a development economist, and a few of the other jobs that allow people to work in international development. Of course, there are many more! This was just to give a taste.

10 path

That’s it! It was fun. What have you done to explain these concepts to young people?

Read African Writers: The Journey’s End, by Ba’bila Mutia

journeys endcameroonTeacher salaries are a point of contention in many countries. But a particular problem in low-income countries is that salary payments will sometimes be delayed for lengthy periods. Ba’bila Mutia’s exciting novel The Journey’s End centers around salary arrears. (No, that’s not an oxymoron.) At the book’s opening, a retired school principal arrives in Cameroon’s capital city, Yaoundé, to seek several years worth of pension payments. His first evening, he meets a younger man who advertises himself as a diviner but who provides detailed assistance on how to navigate the public bureaucracy. As we learn the younger man’s backstory, we find that years before, he arrived in Yaoundé in search of his teacher salary arrears, which he needed to pay his bride price. But in the capital, his life took a dark turn.

The Journey’s End has secret village societies, urban prostitution rings, crime lords, illicit fuel sales, and a tiny bit of magic. But it centers on government bureaucracy and corruption. Much of the book’s climax is dedicated to a retiree ascending and descending stairs in a government building, nudging his file along with a small payment here and there. Mutia manages to captivate (almost) throughout.

I had a few quibbles: The book needed a copy edit, and one twist in the last two pages didn’t quite ring true to me. But neither of those stopped me from enjoying Mutia’s twisty-turny saga.

This is book #23 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Parachute Drop, by Norbert Zongo

parachute dropBurkina FasoNorbert Zongo, an investigative journalist from Burkina Faso, published his novel The Parachute Drop in 1988. He was assassinated ten years later for his journalism. Here’s a passage from the preface to his novel.

“Why did you write about the President?”
Despite the buzzing in my ears, I understood his question well enough.
“Who says I wrote anything?” I had the courage to say. “Where’s your proof?” …
“You are a dangerous subversive… Worse still, you are an anti-militarist radical, an extremist fanatic… If it’s proof you want, look at this…”
The gendarme dropped a large packet on the table. I read The Parachute Drop. It was a manuscript I had mailed some months earlier.

Then on the next page, the first page of the novel proper, Zongo lays out a powerful dichotomy:

A new day dawned: another reprieve for millions of the world’s afflicted. Another reprieve for millions of Africa’s unemployed and wretched. For these, the morning would bring yet more troubles, further miseries to add to their years and days of bitter toil. A reprieve for Africa’s teaming masses, as well as her more obscure wretches, those forgotten souls who languish in the filthy holes of our Founding Presidents and Clairvoyant Guides.

Another began: another day of incredible good luck for thousands of people for whom life has refused nothing, for Africa’s wealthy and educated, for those who believe it is perfectly normal to exploit their brothers and sisters, to treat their fellows like beasts of burden. Another day for Africa’s moral cripples.

As the story proceeds, Gouama — the “president” of Africa’s fictional republic of Watinbow and a terrible dictator — fears an attempted coup and takes decisive action against the purported engineers of the uprising. But all is not as it seems, and Gouama shortly finds himself on the run. Zongo’s novel is fast-paced, biting satire, peppered with dark humor. Highly recommended.  I read Christopher Wise’s translation into English. Wise also provides a preface which provides additional background.

Other reviews of The Parachute Drop:
  • Damien, Travel Readings blog: “The book written in 1988 is almost prescient.”
  • Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “This capacity to evoke empathy and celebrate the humanity of his enemies demonstrates Norbert Zongo’s outstanding qualities as a writer, journalist and human being.”
Other notable lines
  • “Virtual beggars on the international scene, these leaders spent enormous sums of money so they could travel about the world to vilify our people and barter our dignity for the sake of gaining foreign aid. This so-called aid has often been more of a nuisance than a help for our people.”
  • “It takes far more than a beret and a pistol to turn a fool into a wise man.”
  • “There is no real happiness for anyone unless there is happiness for everyone, for all of the people.”

This is book #22 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna

ancestor stonessierra leoneA young woman living in the U.K. receives a letter informing her that her grandfather’s coffee plantation now belongs to her. The letter has no return address. “Knowingly, he had denied me the opportunity to write back with ready excuses, to enclose a cheque bloated with guilty zeroes.” When she returns to her unnamed West African home country (actually Sierra Leone), four of her aunts — all daughters to polygamous wives of the same man — share their life stories. And so, Sierra Leonean and Scottish writer Aminatta Forna’s novel, Ancestor Stones, reads more like a collection of stories than a novel. But the stories give Forna the opportunity to explore diverse nooks and crannies of Sierra Leonean life, from the 1920s up to the turn of the century. Forna’s prose is beautiful as usual. (My favorite of hers remains The Memory of Love, a later novel) I initially had some trouble keeping track of the different stories; as Bernardine Evaristo wrote in the Guardian, “it’s easy to get lost.” But once I surrendered myself to the flow, enjoying each story as it came, I could appreciate — again in the words of Evaristo — Forna’s “inspired storytelling and beautifully crafted prose.” Ultimately I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Two passages take place at polling stations, in sharp contrast. In one, early on, a young woman manages a polling center. “With an hour to go before the election was over, two votes lay in the cavern of the ballot box, like visitors in an empty church. So I spent the remainder of the time filling it up: creating signatures and using up the fingers of one hand and then the other and finally each of my toes to create fictional thumb prints. At six o’clock I closed the door and waited for the box to be collected. I kept my inky hands folded behind my back while the men heaved it into the back of a van along with the others.” It turned out that most of the country voted along ethnic lines, with the exception of this one polling center. Later in the book, a middle-aged woman manages a polling center with her friend and soldiers seek to steal the votes, but she stands firm, only to see the country descend into violence. The book is filled with finely observed moments such as these.

Go read The Memory of Love first. But if you want more Forna — and I’m betting you will — come back and read Ancestor Stones.

Bits and pieces
  • A major character in The Memory of Love makes an earlier, minor appearance here in Ancestor Stones — psychiatrist Adrian Lockheart!
  • Wise advice on marriage from one mother in the book: “My mother told me: ‘Before you are married keep both eyes open and after you are married close one eye.'”
  • On humor: “Gradually I learned what hardships people bore by the things they joked about.”
  • On becoming like your parents: “I had spent my whole life trying not to be like my mother. I had taken the opposite path and hurried along it, all the time looking over my shoulder instead of ahead, so that I failed to see how the path curved back again in the same direction.”
  • On Lagos — where one character makes a visit: “Lagos! It smelled quite like our city, and it looked and sounded a bit like it, too. But, oh, in every other way the difference between them was immense. Our city was a simple melody, whistled by a solitary man. Lagos was one hundred pipes, horns and drummers.”
  • On elections: “When, in a tarnished voice, he announced we were to have elections for the first time in many years few believed it, and many didn’t hear at all because they had given up listening a long, long time ago.”
  • On unkind words: “Quarrels end, but words once uttered never die.”

Read African Writers: The Challenge for Africa, by Wangarĩ Maathai

the challenge for africakenyaThe late, great Dr. Wangarĩ Maathai has no shortage of accomplishments. Hailing from Kenya, she was the first East African woman to receive a PhD and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was a professor, a politician, and an activist. In 2009, just two years before her death, she published The Challenge for Africa, her broad vision of the challenges and solutions facing her continent. Dr. Maathai was an environmentalist and clearly believed that there was no lasting prosperity for the people of Africa without caring for the earth beneath their feet. This wide-ranging book provides thoughtful insights — born from years of experience — on a host of issues. I didn’t agree with every proposal (and her optimism about the Millenium Villages Project did not age well, in my opinion), but there is much of value here. Here are a few thoughts that stood out to me.

  • On global responsibility to Africa: “Instead of milking the cow called Africa to death, everyone should feed, nurture, and love her so she can thrive and provide.”
  • On local responsibility for African development: “Ultimately the fate of the continent depends on its citizens. It cannot be overemphasized: Africans must decide to manage their natural resources responsibly and accountably, agree to share them more equitably, and use them for the good of fellow Africans.”
  • On history and colonialism: “Those who wrote the history of Africa that is taught in schools were often the perpetrators of the wrongs that were done and wrote from their perspective. Quite obviously, they preferred to ‘forget and move forward.'”
  • On aid: “While I applaud the motives of the international community in providing technical and financial assistance to developing countries, including those in Africa, I do question how much good aid does versus how much damage it may do to the capacity of the African peoples to engineer their own solutions to their many problems.”
  • On depictions of Africa in the media: “As someone who raises funds to support work in Africa, I understand the importance of images, and recognize that pictures of Africans in dire circumstances can, ultimately, lead to positive actions from those who are moved to want to help. However, on balance, I find these representations–and the associations they bring with them–demonstrably negative, perhaps even shameful, since they risk stereotyping all countries south of the Sahara as places of famine, death, and hopelessness. Because the children or adults pictured are rarely named, they people remain abstract, symbolic, and no longer individuals. That starving toddler or weeping mother or child soldier is ‘Africa.’ This projection only makes the task more difficult for those of us on the ground trying to help Africans to help themselves.”
  • On the use of colonial languages: “Even if another national language has been adopted, such as Kiswahili in the case of Kenya, the great mass of rural populations neither speak nor understand it fluently. It is my belief that denying someone the ability to communicate with their government, at least at the local level, is one of the strongest forms of discrimination and, indeed, means of oppression and exclusion.”
  • On climate change: “It is in repulsing the sands of deforestation and climate change that the genuine battle for national and human security lies.”

There is much more. I appreciated the book, although I did find myself wishing I had read her memoir, Unbowed. She lived an amazing life, and while we get glimpses of that here, I wished for more. I’m putting Unbowed on my “to read” list.

This is book #20 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

kintuugandaIf you think that sprawling, multi-generational family sagas where characters have multiple names is the exclusive realm of Russian novelists, think again. Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi of Uganda, begins with a man killed by a mob in the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, in the early 2000s. Swiftly, Makumbi takes us back to to the 1750s, when Kintu — the ancestor of his modern-day clan — incurs a curse. We then return to modern times and observe how the curse plays out in different branches of Kintu’s descendants.

Kintu isn’t short, and it isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. The reason that it isn’t easy is because it wasn’t written for me. As Bwesigye wa Mwesigire, another Ugandan writer, notes, “Makumbi manages to dress up a Luganda novel in English words.” Literary scholar Aaron Bady comments, “The main thing to know, simply, is that this novel was written for Ugandans.” Mwesigire goes on, “Kintu’s oral aesthetic goes beyond its language, however, and into its story, which comprises a collection of origin myths and folk tales, many of which Makumbi has created, and a number of which she reinterprets, rewrites and turns upside down.”

There is sweet humor here, as when Kintu and other men of the village give his son a remarkably frank and respectful sex talk before his marriage. But there is also great tragedy — rape and incest and more. Not graphic nor gratuitous, but witnessed or implied. Like many well written big novels, Makumbi touches on a wide range of contemporary issues without it feeling like she’s checking items off a list. When Isaac, one of Kintu’s modern-day descendants, fears that his wife has died of HIV/AIDS and gets tested but is afraid to read the results, he says to a friend, “Blood tests bring nothing but certainty. We could not handle certainty. When all you have is a tiny doubt, you hang onto it.” (This is reminiscent of American poet Danez Smith’s lines about a positive HIV test: “give me a moment of not knowing, sweet piece of ignorance, i want to go back to the question, sweet if of yesterday bridge back to maybe.”) Or when one character’s children opt to drop out of school: “Ssemata’s sons, having been vexed by study, asked if every successful man in the world was educated. When the answer came back negative, they dropped out of school. Besides, education took too long to yield results.” Much of life spills out of these pages.

Definitely read Kintu. But don’t start a week before your book club. If you do, then — as one character said — “May you have luck the way millipedes have legs.”

Reviews in Western outlets
  • Aaron Bady, Lit Hub: “Ugandans have waited a long time for Kintu to exist. Since it was first published in 2014, after winning the Kwani Manuscript Project, the enthusiasm with which Kintu has been received in Uganda has been difficult to describe but remarkable to witness… The main thing to know, simply, is that this novel was written for Ugandans.”
  • Publishers Weekly (starred review): “A masterpiece of cultural memory, Kintu is elegantly poised on the crossroads of tradition and modernity.”
  • African Queer, Rewrite: “What makes Kintu particularly unique is how it approaches its various topical areas, with as much naturalness and ordinariness in discussion of Baganda traditional culture as would be expected of a book written within the more readily accepted Western traditions. Makumbi does not turn to the traditional as the source of an unfamiliar and distant past, but rather as an ever-living present.”
Reviews in African outlets
  • Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire (a Ugandan), Johannesburg Review of Books: “Makumbi’s art, her oral aesthetics, are highly sophisticated, requiring more than the bland generic Anglophone novel, manufactured in the MFA factory, does. While the latter has perpetuated a myth of what is ‘marketable’ in world fiction, part of the joy of Kintu is that it’s stuff is what universal stories are made of. What Luganda speakers hear when they read the novel is not entirely out of reach to non-Luganda speakers, precisely because of its fable-like qualities.”
  • Solomon Asaba, New Times (Rwanda): [This “book review” is merely a summary, including a summary of the book’s ending, with no value judgments.]
  • Itumeleng Molefi, Business Day (South Africa): “Kintu is a triumph and will surely leave a mark on the African literature landscape that will be felt for generations to come.”
This is book #19 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.