Read African Writers: The Grub Hunter, by Amir Tag Elsir (translated by William Hutchins)

the grub huntersudanA retired agent of the secret police decides to write a novel. After all, “a poor Rwandan cobbler composed a novel about the interethnic civil war in his poor African country,” and “a reformed prostitute in Saigon also wrote two brilliant novels: one about her former life when she was nobody in a dark alley, and the other about her new life after she founded a small factory that makes mint candy. Now her novels have been translated into every language, and readers are dazzled by them.” So begins Sudanese born and raised writer Amir Tag Elsir’s delightful novel, The Grub Hunter (translated by William Hutchins), which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2011. The narrator soon finds that writing a novel isn’t easy, but he starts by hanging out at a cafe with an accomplished novelist (called AT — almost all character names are abbreviated, likely a holdover from the narrators days writing secret police reports). “I was very close to the world of writing now.” (Maybe he’ll learn writing by osmosis, who knows?)

One member of AT’s inner circle publishes a romance novel, a genre the narrator dismisses for dubious reasons: “My novel certainly won’t be a love story… This type of story no longer impresses anyone, because love has now become a daily routine practised even by beggars and homeless people.” Then again, who can blame him, when the romance comes with prose like this? “Within your eyes, desire lies dormant; rouse it from its torpor. Awaken it, I entrust you … I want it awake and stupid; I love stupidity.”

AT does give the narrator some advice on writing rituals: “My writing rituals differ from one text to the next. I write some novels while elegantly attired and seated in the lobby of a swank hotel or the departure lounge of some airport. Some texts I compose naked in a closed room with the drapes drawn and not a breath of air. Some texts won’t come unless I wander the streets and alleyways, begging from passers-by. When I wrote my novel before last… I stole a wallet from the pocket of a livestock dealer…and spent an entire month in jail, where I finished the text… I’ll tell you about a novel I wrote in a public latrine reserved for conscripts while I was performing my military service. That’s one of my best.”

It’s all ridiculously fun. Beyond the narrator’s story, we encounter a story within the story, when the narrator reads one of AT’s novels about an amateur and yet already failed filmmaker in Moscow. And wait, there’s more! The narrator of the story within the story paraphrases a novel HE reads about a village girl in eighteenth century Russia, so we’re three layers down and it just gets better. “The novel was a page-turner from the get-go.” I agree!

You can read an excerpt of the novel here.

This is book #32 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.
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Read African Writers — How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child, by Sandra Uwiringiyimana (with Abigail Pesta)

How Dare the Sun RisedrcAt this point, there could be a whole genre of “memoirs by youth who fled war-torn African countries”: Earlier this year I read The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After — about Clemantine Wamariya’s flight from Rwanda at age five and subsequent time in a range of African countries before landing in the U.S. — and in years past I read Ishmael Beah’s memoir of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

To add to the list, I’ve just read How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child, by Sandra Uwiringiyimana (written with Abigail Pesta). Uwiringiyimana fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her family when she was just ten years old. They moved to a refugee camp in Burundi, where she witnessed her mother and sister shot. (That’s the opening scene of the book.) The book is vivid and compelling in both its recounting of the challenges of day-to-day life as a refugee for a young child (as well as the horrors of the massacre in the Burundian camp) and the subsequent challenges that Uwiringiyimana faced when her family moved to Rochester, New York, as part of a refugee resettlement program. Life isn’t easy for refugees, especially those who’ve undergone profound trauma. Uwiringiyimana’s gradual healing and growth into an activist who speaks on behalf of her people is inspiring. Along the way, she chats with the Obamas, Oprah Winfrey, and others.

This memoir — targeted to young adults but insightful to not-so-young adults as well — moved me. And while I was grateful to learn from Uwiringiyimana’s story, it also left me thinking about the kinds of refugees who end up writing books and those who don’t, and how I look forward to finding even more stories in times to come. This story was a privilege to hear, but I don’t want to get caught in the danger of a single story.

Here are a few passages that impressed me:
  • On education: “My parents deeply valued education. They had big dreams for their kids, and they knew it all started with school.”
  • On getting to school in DRC: “The kids at my school all lived within walking distance. That was the only way for any of us to get to school: on our feet.”
  • On racism in DRC: “At school, the Congolese kids were not always so supportive. They would tease me, mainly because my nose was thinner than theirs, making me look different. Sometimes they would say I wasn’t truly Congolese. Other times they would call me Rwandan. It was meant to be an insult, making me into a foreigner, but I didn’t know what it meant. ‘I’m not Rwandan,’ I would say. ‘I’ve never been to Rwanda. I was born here.’”
  • On twerking: “Where I come from, twerking is not sexualized the way it is in America. The boys sometimes do it better than the girls. Everyone does it. It’s wild and fun and freeing,”
  • On camping as a former refugee: “One day, the youth group invited me along for an overnight party that sounded weird to me—a camping trip. I had never heard of camping. I imagined we would go to the woods and hike and swim, then go to sleep in a bed in a house. When I heard that we would be sleeping on the ground for three days, outside, under a tent, I thought that was insane. People did this on purpose? It sounded like a refugee camp. Goodness, I thought. Are these people so bored, so privileged, that they want to sleep outside on the ground instead of in their comfy beds?”
  • On images of Africa on American TV: “The images of Africa on American TV were all the same: There were the ads for charity groups showing a white lady holding a starving black child, flies landing all over the kid. Indeed, Africans might be poor, but we know how to swat flies.”
  • On the upside of Facebook: “As more survivors of our massacre made their way to America, we began to connect with one another on Facebook, as we were all scattered across the country. And we decided to meet up once a year for a reunion, on the anniversary of the attack in August.

Here is what a few other critics had to say:
  • Elizabeth Bush, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: “Sandra’s account of her transition to America is fully as engrossing as her family’s escape from their war-torn homeland, and her memories of trying to navigate American culture as a twelve-year-old alien desperate to fit in will provoke consideration even with readers who look upon immigrant classmates and neighbors with indifference.”
  • Didier Gondola, Africa Access Review: “How Dare the Sun Rise is not without its flaws. Although her compelling story does elicit her readers’ sympathy for the plight of refugees, the author never really provides a context to help readers understand the history and events that transformed the Great Lakes Region into a cauldron of war. At times, the narrative verges on the trivial and the melodramatic.”
  • Zoe I, TeenReads.com: “HOW DARE THE SUN RISE is a deeply moving and powerful book about strength, resilience and the truth about the American Dream.”
  • Kirkus Reviews: “This hard-hitting autobiography will have readers reeling as it shows one young woman’s challenging path to healing.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “With compassion and perspicacity, Uwiringiyimana shares the journey through which she became a courageous advocate for her tribe and refugees everywhere.”
  • School Library Journal: “The title is a critical piece of literature, contributing to the larger refugee narrative in a way that is complex and nuanced but still accessible for a YA audience.

This is book #31 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Stains on My Khanga, by Sandra Mushi

Stains on my khangatanzaniaThe opening story of Sandra Aikaruwa Mushi’s collection of poetry and short tales, Stains on My Khanga, features a harrowing scene:

The day arrived when he beat me because I refused to serve his mistress a plate of ugali. When it was clear there wasn’t enough for his mistress he kicked his plate of ugali to the floor, and kicked me too. He jeered. Was I supposed to cook for his mistress too? She laughed and cheered him on as he forced me to eat from the floor like a dog.

Mushi’s prose isn’t refined and she isn’t subtle, but there is a rawness that lends power to her writing. She shines a bright light on issues facing Tanzanian women today. The style sometimes reminded me of Rupi Kaur’s poetry collection milk & honey. Another example of that raw cry shows through in Mushi’s poem, “Mine,” which begins “My short skirt / My tight pants / My plunging neckline … / They are mine … / My things have nothing to do with you.” In another poem she likens politicians with empty promises to lovers who treat one like a sex worker:

“Tell your friends about me,” he said as he left, throwing a few notes on my creaking bed…
Timidly I covered my nakedness
with a torn piece of my khanga…
I had let him have the only thing I had
the one thing he wanted from me
the only valuable thing I had–
my vote.

(That one reminded me of Lena Dunham’s likening of the first time you vote to your first sexual experience.)

Not all the pieces are about women. In one, an underpaid teacher takes bribes in exchange for test scores. In another, migrants to the city each overstate their success in letters home, leading others to miscalculate the expected gains. But abuse and exploitation certainly center the assemblage. The whole collection is a quick, powerful read.

Here are a few additional passages that struck me.
  • On alcohol and abusive relationships: “The bottle was her solace. The bottle was his ally.”
  • On mothers and daughters with abusive men: “When I watched her, I watched her watching him watching me. Like me, she watched in silence.”
  • On prostitution: “What’s the point if I make in one night more than you make in a month?” (Spoiler alert: In the story, the retirement plan doesn’t end up being great.)

This is book #30 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: A Tunisian Tale, by Hassouna Mosbahi

A Tunisian TaletunisiaAn adult son has committed an unspeakable crime and narrates from his jail cell, “narrow as a tomb, and just as cold.” (The crime is so unspeakable, in fact, that it isn’t revealed until three-quarters of the way through the book.) A mother narrates from beyond the grave. In this dark novel with dual tellers, Tunisian writer Hassouna Mosbahi illustrates — in A Tunisian Tale, published in Tunisia in 2008 and translated to English by Max Weiss — what happens when trust breaks down completely in communities and families. There is a smattering of friendship and love here, set against an avalanche of gossip, backbiting, and betrayal.

Here are a few areas that the novel illuminated for me:
  • On welfare smoothing over time: “People in my country say that it’s better for a person to live as a rooster for just one day than to be a chicken for an entire year.”
  • On education and child marriage: “What else could I do after getting kicked out of school for failing the elementary certificate exam twice in a row? What else could I do? I was past the age of maturity and on the verge of getting married. In our tiny dirt-poor village a young girl in a situation such as mine had no other choice but to consent to the way things are. If she tried to escape, to rebel against those stern rules, narrow-minded people would turn her into an ugly tale that they would talk about in private and in public. By that point it would be likely for one of her male relatives to lose his head and shoot her or stab her, washing away the shame, defending the impugned honor, as people used to say in such circumstances.“
  • More on child marriage: “I won’t hide from you that when I was that age I was untouched, fresh, like a flower that had started to open up, but living in permanent horror. That horror becomes even sharper and fiercer the more I thought about how, one day, one of those men I hated and who I’d sooner die than let his flesh touch mine was going to come and, amid the ululations and the songs, the beating of drums and the sounds of flutes, and the firing of the horsemen’s rifles, bring me back to his house, close all the doors and take me as he got all puffed up like the winter wind and his family stood outside on the doorstep, ready to open fire in celebration of his masculinity’s victory.“
  • On one character’s obsession with the film Cool Hand Luke: “Listen, Alaa al-Din, movies aren’t real life and life isn’t a movie.” (This line reminded me of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song The End of the Movie.)
  • On urbanization: “Dreaming of a better life, they quickly found themselves having lost everything, and they remained lost creatures without origins or roots. Under the pressures of everyday life, its twists and turns and its raging storms, these creatures gave up all their human feelings and values. In those ugly neighborhoods where they piled up, they resorted to every way and every means, including crime and deception, lying and hypocrisy, and vice of every type and kind, in order to secure their daily bread.”
  • On external validation: “What mattered to me most of all wasn’t men, but the feeling that I was still beautiful and attractive.”
  • On jobs and women’s empowerment: “But what should I do, then?” “Find yourself a job!” “A job?” “That’s right. Only a job will let you laugh at your life, as you must.”
  • On talking to oneself: “The number of people who had started talking to themselves in our country had increased in a shocking manner over the last few years… My friend Aziz told me that this phenomenon could be traced to the fact that the people had lost faith in all forms of media, and even in their nearest and dearest relatives. Therefore they no longer trust anyone but themselves, which is whom they turn to whenever they have to deal with a private or a public problem, so it became normal for us to see people talking to themselves as they walked down the street or strolled through public gardens, as they rode the light rail and other public transportation or sat in front of the piles of folders stacking up on their desks.

Here are the takes of a few other readers:
  • Ghada Alatrash, Al Jadid: A Review & Record of Arab Culture and Arts: “A succinct and skillfully written novel that takes its readers into the darkest corners of Tunis and of the human mind.”
  • William Armstrong, Hurriyet Daily News: “a raw, claustrophobic book about frustrated ambitions, urban desperation and hopelessness. The narrative is brilliantly paced, with an almost Shakespearean sense of characters embroiled in tragic situations where fate beats towards an inescapable conclusion.”
  • Michele Levy, World Literature Today: “A Tunisian Tale crosses genres. Its clipped, bleak tone evokes a noir, while realism inheres in its portrait of Tunisia and allusions to contemporary political movements… Yet it most resembles parable, showing how socially constructed cultural codes can transform society into a Kafkaesque penal colony.”
  • Susannah Tarbush, Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature: “Mosbahi’s highly readable novel has potentially wide appeal for readers of English. It can be seen as a psychological thriller, a sample of ‘North African Noir’. It also shows the sense of alienation and hopelessness and the perceived inequalities in Tunisia on the brink of the revolution that began in 2010.”

This is book #29 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: When the Ground Is Hard, by Malla Nunn

when the ground is hardeswatiniAs Adele boards the bus to return to her boarding school for mixed-race students in Apartheid-era Swaziland (now eSwatini), she learns that a wealthier girl has taken her place in the clique of powerful, popular girls. She suddenly finds herself rooming with Lottie, a low-income student with little respect for social norms, in a room last used by a student who died. But over the course of a school year, a series of adventures and a shared copy of the novel Jane Eyre bring the girls together. In this sweet, engaging book, Swazi born and raised writer Malla Nunn draws on her own experiences (as she discusses here) to explore both class and race issues in southern Africa. When the Ground Is Hard is targeted to young adults but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Bahni Turpin reads the unabridged audiobook well.

Here are a few passages that stood out to me:
  • On teacher effort in science class: “Mr. Newman, who smells of aftershave and leans too close to girls, starts the lesson with a basic ‘name three planets, three trees, and three mammals’ test that all but the thickest students will pass. Mr. Newman is lazy, and teaching us new things requires effort.”
  • On race relations: “Mother says poor white people are the most dangerous. Some of them have less money than we do, and they hate us for it. From the moment we slide into the world with our mixed blood and mixed features, we live below them, no matter how stupid or hopeless they are.” [Later] “Mother says that poor white people are dangerous because only a thin layer of skin makes them kings of the land, but it’s not enough to save them from the pity of other whites or the silent contempt of natives who must suffer their cruelty.”
  • On the contrast between literature figure Jane Eyre and her fiction friend Helen Burns: Jane “has a temper. Her mouth doesn’t hurt from smiling. She’s the one who gets to live and write the book.”
  • On class: “No-fee students get smaller portions of food. Their stomachs are always empty, and that’s not how things should be.”

Here are what a few other reviewers thought:

  • Kirkus Reviews: “With a critical emphasis on power dynamics among the multiracial students, the story moves quickly… An engrossing narrative that gently but directly explores complex relationships.”
  • Diane Colson, Booklist: “Despite the predictable arc of the story, excellent writing and an evocative setting make this novel a standout.”
  • Bailey Riddle, Riddle’s Reviews: “When the Ground is Hard is a beautiful book about family and finding oneself. I am so happy that I gave this book a chance with an open mind.”
  • Compass Book ratings: “Those who enjoy a coming-of-age story with a great moral lesson or two will love When the Ground is Hard.”

This is book #28 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, by Maaza Mengiste

Beneath the Lions Gaze.jpgethiopia.pngEthiopian-born writer Maaza Mengiste fled her country as a young girl around a period called the Ethiopian Red Terror, when between tens and hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians were killed by a communist military government called the Derg. In her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, Mengiste uses one family to recount the end of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule and the intimate horror of the Derg. The family’s patriarch, a surgeon, faces a terrible choice when the military brings him a victim of torture — at the brink of death — to revive, presumably for further interrogation. The surgeon’s two sons, his daughter-in-law, and their friends each confront the terror in their own way. Mengiste’s novel isn’t for the faint of heart: There is one scene of child torture and many other difficult images. But as Mengiste told NPR, “I am hoping that if we can understand the humanity of those who suffered through this, that we start to investigate beyond the pages of this book.”

I listened to the audiobook, well narrated by Steven Crossley. I had to jot down a few character names to keep track of everyone at the beginning, but it was well worth it.

Here are a few other reviews:

  • Lorraine Adams, the New York Times: “For all its beginner’s flaws, ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’ is an important novel, rich in compassion for its anguished characters.”
  • Aida Edemariam, The Guardian: “Mengiste has clear metaphorical points to make: that this revolution was a family affair, turning children against parents, and against each other; that a country steeped in authoritarianism and religious fatalism … can suffer a terrible moral passivity at times of crisis… She is good on the resulting lostness, and on how everyone is compromised… Mengiste is good, too, on the pervading fear that anyone who lived there then remembers.”
  • Kirkus Reviews: “An arresting, powerful novel that works on both personal and political levels.”
  • The New Yorker: “The real marvel of this tender novel is its coiled plotting, in which coincidence manages to evoke the colossal emotional toll of the revolution: on a crowded street, soldiers force the doctor’s elder son to drag away a prisoner whom they shot, and who turns out to be a family servant’s long-lost child; the younger son becomes a legendary resistance fighter, killing soldiers and collecting civilian bodies for burial, while his fumbling childhood best friend thrives under a senior officer of the junta.”

This is book #27 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. I’m halfway there!

 

Read African Writers: Nocturnes, by Léopold Sédar Senghor (translated by Clive Wake and John O. Reed)

senegalnocturnesLéopold Sédar Senghor was the first president of a post-colonial, independent Senegal, from 1960 until 1980. But long before he was president, Senghor was an intellectual and a poet. After the first year of his presidency, in 1961, he published a collection entitled Nocturnes. An English translation from the original French — by Wake and Reed — was published some years later. In the author’s note at the end of his poetry collection, Senghor writes, “I write primarily for my own people,” and this comes through clearly, with a host of references to specific places that may have been familiar to Senegalese readers in the 1960s but are lost on this U.S. reader in the 2010s. He includes a glossary in the back which only partially mitigates the challenge, so I admit that much of this collection passed above my head. But not all of it! Even to an unfamiliar reader, his poetry contains powerful images.

Some of the images are of fickle, potentially unrequited love:

I have woven you a song and you did not hear me…
I have offered you my wild flowers. Will you let them wither,
Finding distraction in the mayflies dancing?

Another plays with the concept of Western versus African religious beliefs in the context of insomnia:

Roads of insomnia, roads at noon, these long nightlong roads!
How long is it now since I entered civilisation and still I have not succeeded in appeasing the white God of Sleep.
O I speak his language yes, but listen to my accent.

Or the power of music and dance:

Rhythm drives out the fear that has us by the throat.

At other times I felt mystified, as when Senghor speaks of

And your lips are bread filling my breast that hisses like a black snake.

All in all, a worthy read from a great intellectual.

This is book #26 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.