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.

Read African Writers: The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

old driftzambiaThe Old Drift, by Zambian-born writer Namwali Serpell, is hot right now. The New York Times calls it “a dazzling debut,” NPR talks about “exquisite acts of literary ventriloquism, the Washington Post calls it “a brilliant literary response to generations of bad politics.” It’s mostly set in Zambia, but it spans four generations (extending into the near future), a long list of characters — as Michael Silverblatt says, “you have a pencil and a piece of paper” — and multiple continents. At 576 pages (or 25 hours of audiobook), there’s a lot there. I enjoyed it, but I’ll admit that I occasional missed some of the intergenerational character connections (I should have wielded that pencil), perhaps because I was listening to the audiobook. Occasionally a “Greek chorus” enters in the form of a swarm of mosquitos: “We’re your oldest friend, your ancient enemy … We’re perfectly matched … We’re both useless, ubiquitous species. But while you all rule the earth and destroy it for kicks, we linger and loaf, unsung heroes. We’ve been around here as long as you have — for eons before, say the fossils.”

Several multi-generational novels have come out by African writers (who all happen to be women) recently: Homegoing (by Gyasi), Kintu (by Makumbi), She Would Be King (by Moore). Homegoing is excellent and it’s also the most easily accessible to a Western reader, much of it taking place in the United States. Kintu is expressly not written for a Western reader, which is part of its charm. The Old Drift — especially in the early years — privileges a number of European characters, but with 550+ pages, there’s lots of room for Zambian voices, and they fill the latter half. Notably, indigenous blacks and European whites and South Asian browns all mix to make up Zambia here.

Here are a few lines that I found thought-provoking:
  • “History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.”
  • “The first time a Shiwa audience saw John Wayne die, the women started up a fanfare of mourning like he was a long lost relative. When Wayne came back to life in the very next film, the audience erupted again. ‘But why?’ asked Agnes. ‘Were they happy?’ ‘No!’ Ronald laughed. ‘They said it was cheating!’
  • “To have nothing to do was like having your fingernails pulled out, one by one.”
  • “In truth, Sylvia was relieved to have failed out of school for good. She had never understood why the teachers taught why they taught. Sediment, tectonic, archipelago. Hypotenuse, equilateral, isosceles. What was any of it good for? No. She did not miss those useless lessons.”
  • “Progress is just the word we use to disguise power doing its thing.”
  • “The flight attendants…were done with coddling. They snatched Naila’s blankets and demanded her headset, they claimed her rubbish and chastised her tilted seat.”

This is book #25 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo, by Germano Almeida

last will and testamentcape verde“The reading of the last will and testament of Sr. Napumoceno da Silva Araújo ate up a whole afternoon. When he reached the one-hundred-and-fiftieth page, the notary admitted he was already tired and actually broke off to ask that someone bring him a glass of water.” So begins The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo, Cape Verdean writer Germano Almeida‘s novel about the life of the titular character, translated to English by Sheila Faria Glaser. The book wanders through Almeida’s life and loves, and Almeida’s “refreshing voice and playful irony” (as Publisher’s Weekly put it) reminded me of the feel of Brazilian literature I’ve encountered, like Jorge Amado’s The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray. Araújo works his way up from poverty and becomes a successful businessman, then an eccentric technophile, then an isolated writer. One of his initial business successes demonstrates the feel of the novel: Araújo accidentally orders 10,000 umbrellas rather than his intended 1,000 (and even that was “almost as a joke,” as there was little rain), writes an angry note to his supplier, but then an unprecedented, extended rainstorm allows him to sell all for great profit. The novel is filled with little anecdotes like this one. Araújo has some quirky ideas — for example on goodness and on intellectual property.

On goodness: “Carlos [Araújo’s nephew] has turned out to be an ungrateful relation and as the good man I am and always have been, I have the moral obligation never to forgive him.”
On intellectual property: “Sr. Napumoceno confessed that he’d laid claim to his nephew’s ideas as if they were his own, justifying it by noting that in truth it might well be said that they were, since if Carlos had ideas at all it was because he had sent him to school and then to Lisbon, and that it was even he, Napumoceno, who had gotten him a job…, so his nephew’s ideas were nothing more than the normal return on well-invested capital, and for this reason he considered himself the legitimate owner of any worthwhile notion born in that mind.”

Overall I enjoyed the novel (low on plot but high on interesting observations), although there is a confusing scene that seems like a rape but isn’t treated like a rape in the novel (page 64). The woman in the scene certainly seems unwilling, but after the initial event, the couple enters into a consensual relationship and there is a reference to an “entrapment charade” and to “why, if we both wanted it,” so it’s not entirely obvious whether the first encounter was part of the “charade.” My uncertainty about that scene colored my enjoyment of the novel, and I’m not the only one.

Here are a few lines that I found thought-provoking:
  • On purpose: “By nature and social position a humble man, he, Napumoceno, could not aspire to ending the turmoil of the planet. But here on this bit of earth, poor but beloved, he would like to contribute with all his strength to bringing a reign of harmony and peace, and, who knows, maybe even well-being, to the forsaken.”
  • On priorities: “No fortune is enough to make up for the loss of our peace and quiet.”
  • On sex: “Life is a naked woman lying on a bed, he’d read that, he no longer remembered where, and he had accepted this assertion as the unquestionable truth and for that reason he had a morbid fear of being impotent with a woman.”
  • On education and jobs:
    • “Only productive work linked to a basic education can free a man from darkness and misery.”
    • “He said that I had to be a man and that only books, only school, made men.”
  • On guidance: “Crickets sing to guide people, but poor things, more often than not they disorient us because they all sing at the same time, each one pulling you toward it, no one can find his way in the midst of that cacophony of calls.”
  • On reading: “He couldn’t quite determine when he’d acquired the vice of reading, because a bona fide vice it was, a sort of sedative opium that he took to recoup from both physical and spiritual exhaustion, and also from the annoyances of the day or the excitement of a deal.”
  • On lump sums versus annuities: One characters wishes her inheritance as a lump sum in order to start a chicken farm (p147), consistent with some thinking around cash transfer programs and less frequent, larger transfers being associated with investment rather than consumption.

This is book #24 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

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.