Read African Writers: The Epic of Askia Mohammed, recounted by Nouhou Malio and edited and annotated by Thomas Hale

epic of askia mohammedNigerNouhou Malio was a griot — a “historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician” — from the nation of Niger. In 1981, he sat down with Thomas Hale and recounted The Epic of Askia Mohammed, which Hale then recorded, translated, edited and annotated. But it wasn’t easy: Much of the epic was told in the Songhay language, but one in five lines were “in archaic Soninké, the occult language of the Songhay, and perhaps other languages.” With help, Hale got almost all of this epic into English. Askia Mohammed was a ruler of the Songhay empire, based in Gao (a city in present-day Mali) from 1493 until 1528. The story is a wild ride. There’s a levitating city, protected by a hen (along with a python and an ox, but I was really focused on the bodyguard hen). Somebody gets called the “hat of a wild boar.” My favorite line, perhaps, was, “It is his head that is really a big head.” I know, I’m probably reveling too much in the different-ness of the story, but part of the pleasure here is the fact that the tale is so distinct from most modern fiction. It’s a unique, intriguing tale, and Hale provides both an essential summary in the introduction and detailed annotations for the reader who wants to dig deeper.

Ann Morgan gives a longer review: She concludes that The Epic is “a fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, read. At times bewildering and shocking, it is also enthralling. And despite the incompleteness of the text and the cultural mores that can leave the Western reader fumbling for the meaning, there are moments of magic where the pages seem to be stripped away and we are transported to sit in that village two miles south of the Nigerien capital Niamey, listening to a story told more than 30 years ago.” Isidore Okpewho writes a critique of the book (which I can’t immediately access since I don’t have a subscription to Research in African Literatures), to which Thomas Hale responds.

This book is #39 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.
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Read African Writers — Akissi: Tales of Mischief and Akissi: More Tales of Mischief, written by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Mathieu Sapin, and translated by Judith Taboy and Marie Bédrune

Akissi Tales of MischiefAkissi More Tales of Mischiefcote divoireDo you ever read a book that’s so good that you want everyone you know to read it? These are those books! Marguerite Abouet grew up in Côte d’Ivoire, then moved to France at the age of 12. In Akissi: Tales of Mischief and its sequel Akissi: More Tales of Mischief, Abouet shows — as she explains in her introduction — “a different view of Africa than the one we are usually shown. An Africa that is full of life, rather than sorrow.” In these graphic novels, illustrated by Mathieu Sapin, Akissi is a little girl who lives with her family in Abidjan and gets into constant trouble. She encounters dangerous minibus drivers, tapeworms, and mean teachers. The stories are hilarious: I laughed out loud reading them. My brother laughed out loud reading them. My kids read and enjoyed them. These are appropriate for all ages: I think the most adult element is the word “hell” at some point in the second book. Run, don’t walk, and pick up the adventures of Akissi.

These books — both, but especially the first — are delightful. I’m not the only one who thinks so:

On Tales of Mischief:
    • Marjorie Ingall, New York Times: “Utterly unputdownable. Based on Abouet’s childhood memories of growing up in the port town of Abidjan (which also formed the basis of her award-winning “Aya of Yop City” books for older readers, which have been translated into 15 languages), the rapid-fire, action-packed tales are wild and antic.”
    • Publishers Weekly: “Sapin’s richly colored artwork complements Abouet’s tales, which bring to life universal aspects of childhood, illustrating the silliness, resourcefulness, and mishaps that are experienced all over the world.”
    • School Library Journal: “Realistic moments are not softened, such as when Akissi eats rotten fruit off the ground and contracts tapeworms that crawl out of her nose. But with its gross-out humor and plucky heroine, the collection reads like Dennis the Menace meets Pearls Before Swine, set in West Africa—and may appeal to fans of both.”
On More Tales of Mischief:
    • Kirkus Reviews on More Tales of Mischief: “Outrageously fun—this indomitable little girl is simply incomparable.”

If you like Akissi, then I highly recommend Abouet’s earlier graphic series about an adolescent girl in Abidjan — Aya: Life in Yop City and Aya: Love in Yop City. (Here’s what I wrote about the first entry, ten years ago.)

The two Akissi books are #38a and #38b in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers — Guantanamo Diary: Restored Edition, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Guantanamo DiarymauritaniaEarly in his memoir of his time as a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Mohamedou Ould Slahi of Mauritania tells the story of a man who goes to a psychiatrist, complaining about a rooster: The man says, “’The rooster thinks I’m corn.’ ‘You’re not corn. You are a very big man. Nobody can mistake you for a tiny ear of corn,’ the psychiatrist said. ‘I know that, Doctor. But the rooster doesn’t. Your job is to go to him and convince him that I am not corn.’ By Slahi’s account, his 15 years of detentions were one long process of convincing the rooster (the U.S. government) that he wasn’t corn (involved in terrorism).

In 2001, Slahi was detained for questioning in his home country of Mauritania and then flown in a CIA rendition plane to Jordan for interrogation. In 2002, he was flown to Guantánamo Bay as a prisoner for further interrogation. In 2010, a U.S. judge ordered his release; the Obama administration appealed. In 2016 — 15 years after he was initially detained — he was finally released and reunited with his family. He never had any formal charges made against him. While in detention in 2005, Slahi wrote an account of his experience: Guantanamo Diary. His lawyers fought for years for the book to be published. When it was — with the extensive work of editor Larry Siems, 2,600 words, phrases, or passages had been redacted by the US government. After Slahi’s release, he put out a “restored edition” in which he does his best to recreate the redacted sections. Highlighting remains over those parts that were previously redacted, giving us a sense of just how extensive the censorship was. (The audiobook was recorded from the redacted version, so this is one case where I strongly recommend reading rather than listening.)

Slahi’s account provides an inside view to the torture that he experienced, both in Jordan under U.S. guidance and then under direct U.S. control in Cuba. Obviously he tells his side of the story — that’s true with any memoir — but it’s a crucial side, and it’s a side that many U.S. citizens don’t encounter from day to day. He tells his story with humor and humanity, which is particularly striking given that he wrote after years of being detained (and while still in detention).

If you want a sample, you can listen to excerpts read by Benedict Cumberbatch, Neil Gaiman, Jude Law, and others.

This is book #37 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Here are a few passages that stuck with me:
  • From the editor, Larry Siems: “I still struggle to fathom the scope and intensity of that ordeal, and what it says about my country’s commitment to the core human rights values of due process and freedom of expression.”
  • From Slahi, on The Catcher in the Rye: “made me laugh until my stomach hurt”
  • On identifying whether you’re going #1 or #2 in the bathroom: “In the countries I’ve been in, it isn’t customary to ask people about their intention in the bathroom, nor do they have a code.” (For the record, I’ve been in several countries that do ask and do have a shorthand.)
  • On tea: “Tea is the only thing that keeps the Mauritanian person alive, with God’s help. It had been a long time since any of us had eaten or drunk anything, but the first thing that came to mind was tea.”
  • On the anticipation of torture: “I hate waiting on torture; an Arabic proverb says, ‘Waiting on torture is worse than torture.’”
  • On video games: “One of the punishments of their civilization is that Americans are addicted to video games.”
  • On the secret police: “The funny thing about ‘Secret Police’ in Arab countries is that they are more known to the commoners than the regular police forces. I think the authorities in Arabic countries should think about a new nomenclature, something like ‘The Most Obvious Police.’”
  • On how Americans in Guantanamo speak English: “I learned that there was no way to speak colloquial English without F—ing this and F—ing that.”

Toni Morrison for Kids

Celebrated writer Toni Morrison passed away one month ago today. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and myriad other honors. She is best known for her eleven novels, among them Beloved and The Bluest Eye. But with her passing, I discovered another genre of Morrison’s writing: children’s literature! Morrison wrote nine books of children’s fiction — together with her son Slade Morrison — and one book of children’s nonfiction. Over the last month, I read all of them in the company of my eight-year-old daughter. They’re wonderful. Treat yourself and your kids to these gems. Warning: Spoilers for children’s picture books below!

ant or grasshopperIn four books, the Morrisons retell classic tales with a thoughtful twist. In Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper?, the two insects have a great summer hanging in the park, but when fall comes, the ant gets to work, preparing for winter, while the grasshopper keeps making his music. In the cold winter, the grasshopper comes knocking at the ant’s door, asking for help. Condescending ant gives a haughty speech but grasshopper stands up for himself: “How can you say I never worked a day? Art is work. It just looks like play.” The Morrisons offer no tidy resolution. They just pose the question — “Who’s got game?” — and walk away.

lion or mouseIn Who’s Got Game? The Lion or the Mouse?, the titular rodent pulls a thorn from the paw of the king of the jungle, but then starts making more and more demands in return, ultimately desiring to be king himself. The story ends with a remarkable role reversal, with a meditative lion achieving wisdom on a lonely hill.

poppy or snakeIn Who’s Got Game? Poppy or the Snake?, a grandfather tells his grandson about the time he got friendly with a snake until things turned bad. “Hey, man. I’m a snake. You knew that.” But the Morrisons gently twist this fable from Aesop to teach the importance of paying attention. The three Who’s Got Game? books are available as an audiobook, narrated beautifully by Toni Morrison herself.

tortoise or hareIn The Tortoise or the Hare, two social outcasts — a studious tortoise and an athletic hare — sign up for a race and show that you can set your own goal and win regardless.

the big boxIn The Big Box, three children love to make noise, get dirty, and — you know — act like children. With each child in turn, the adults in their lives intervene: “‘Oh Patty,’ they said, ‘you’re an awfully sweet girl with a lot of potential inside you. But you have to know how far to go so the grown-up world can abide you.” Each child defends herself: “If freedom is handled just your way then it’s not my freedom or free.” But the adults put each child in a “big brown box,” filled with all kinds of wondrous things. Not their freedom, though. The candy-coated oppression drips from the pages of this book, but wait and see what happens when you put kids in a box.

peeny butter fudgePeeny Butter Fudge. What happens when grandma is in charge? In this delightful, rhyming story, mom goes to work and leaves her three children in grandma’s care with a strict schedule of activities. Grandma deviates from the schedule but knows that a sweet, nostalgic treat at the end of the day can soothe the most harried mom.

please louisePlease, Louise. Louise inhabits a frightening world: old houses, dark clouds, barking dogs. Until she gets to the library, that is. “Here is shelter from any storm. In this place you are never alone.” A sweet homage to libraries.

little cloudLittle Cloud and Lady Wind. What do clouds do? They “terrify the earth with storm and thunder”! All but one cloud, that is. Little Cloud loves the earth and wants more from her life. One night, Lady Wind takes Little Cloud on a journey to discover all that a cloud can really be: “I am me and all the things I dreamed of.”

the book of mean peopleThe Book of Mean People. Through the eyes of children (child rabbits, in this case), the Morrisons present all the people that appear mean to children in this picture book with just a handful of words per page. “My mother is mean. She says I don’t listen. She says, ‘DO YOU HEAR ME?’ I can’t hear her when she is screaming.” Or my favorite line: “My baby-sitter is mean. She says, ‘Hurry up. You are wasting time!’ How can I waste time if I use it?” Remember, “Big people are little when they are mean. But little people are not big when they are mean.” Truth.

As with most storybooks, these aren’t just about the words. The Morrisons have collaborated with a range of talented illustrators to bring these stories to life.

remember the journeyIn the one children’s book that Toni Morrison authored without her son, Remember: The Journey to School Integration, she combines photos from the battle for school integration in the 1950s with captions that imagine what the children in the photos are thinking. The pictures are powerful — some hopeful, some frustrating, some enraging — and Morrison’s captions bring them to life.

My favorites were The Big Box and The Ant or the Grasshopper? I encourage you to discover your own, with or without children.

Read African Writers: The Shadow of Things to Come, by Kossi Efoui

shadow of things to cometogoTowards the beginning of his novel, Kossi Efoui tells a joke: “It’s the story of three men together in the prison cell. The first says, ‘I got twenty years for telling a joke.’ The second says, ‘I got fifteen for laughing.’ The third says, ‘I got ten years for doing nothing.’ ‘You’re lying,’ say the other two, ‘doing nothing–that’s only a five-year stretch.'” In an unnamed African country — Efoui was born and raised in Togo — the narrator of The Shadow of Things to Come (translated from French by Chris Turner), a boy’s father is taken away to a re-education camp from reasons unknown, and his mother is whisked away to a mental hospital. Mama Maize — a woman who cares for lost children — provides shelter and Axis Kemal — a bookseller — provide guidance to our narrator, until he receives the call to the “Frontier Challenge,” likely a border war. But we’re never certain, for Efoui’s narrative is filled with more doublespeak than George Orwell’s 1984. Efoui mimics the way that the government maintains uncertainty with euphemisms upon euphemisms. Nothing is clear until the government comes banging on your door, that is. “Don’t wait for them to capture you.” The Shadow of Things to Come is ominous, circular, and effective.

Here is what a couple of others had to say about the book:
  • Matt Hartman, Bookslut: “This novel is a powerful reflection on the world we live in, a vision that goes beyond truisms about tyranny and control and freedom and returns our gaze to the humans at the center of it all.”
  • Gautam Bhatia, The Wire: “The bleak, almost nightmarish world conjured up in The Shadow of Things to Come, where everything but words have “so little existence”, is a disturbingly familiar one.”
You can read an excerpt here. This is book #36 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Gratitude in Low Voices, by Dawit Gebremichael Habte

gratitude in low voiceseritreaDawit Gebremichael Habte grew up in rural Eritrea, then Asmara (Eritrea’s capital). As a teenager he traveled through Ethiopia and entered Kenya as a refugee from the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. Ultimately he migrated to the United States, studied at Johns Hopkins University, and went to work for Michael Bloomberg’s company. But he didn’t do it alone! Early in his memoir, Habte quotes an Eritrean proverb: “To those who have done you favors, either return the favor or tell others about their good deeds.” Habte’s memoir — Gratitude in Low Voices — is focused on gratitude to all those who helped him on his path. Along the way, he shares his experience of both rural and urban life in Eritrea, a short history of Eritrea and of the long-term conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea: “Out of the fifty-three former European colonies in Africa, Eritrea was the only country to be denied independence after its European masters departed.” His escape to Kenya is harrowing, and when he arrives in the U.S. — like many other refugees — the challenges are far from over. But I enjoyed Habte’s story. He gives brief bios of many of the people who helped him along the way as a way of honoring, which interrupts his narrative, but I respect his objective.

I listened to the audiobook, capably narrated by Benjamin Onyango. When he talked about how his “neighbor Alembrhan Berhe had an amazing way of explaining basic arithmetic and mathematical word problems using practical examples. She would use dates, ages, household items, and prices of basic goods to explain addition- and subtraction-related challenges and word problems,” I remember work from another country — by Banerjee and others — showing that children working in markets in India were able to solve arithmetic problems, but only when those problems were framed as market transactions.”

Here is what a few other people thought of the book (including Eritrea’s Ministry of Information!):
  • Emeka Aniagolu, TesfaNews: “An excellent autobiographical work which will prove a powerful voice…for not only his family’s experience, but for his country, Eritrea.”
  • Robin Edmunds, Foreword Reviews: “This book is a reaffirmation of the good that people can do and how one young man succeeded despite the odds against him.”
  • Ann Morgan: A Year of Reading the World: “Those looking for masterful writing won’t find it here. But those looking for passion and a fresh perspective undoubtedly will.”
  • Mary Okeke, Mary Okeke Reviews: “Gratitude in Low Voices is an interesting and an uplifting narrative, simple and comprehensible, it is just Dawit telling his story.”
  • Sofia Tesfamariam, Eritrea Ministry of Information: “Dawit Ghebremichael Habte has managed to organize the memories of his journey and present a story that finds rare authenticity and validation of not just his own life but also that of others who have crossed his path… Despite beginning with an Eritrean adage, what was missing in the book was more of them.”
  • Vivian Wagner, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction: “This is, at times, a rambling and disjointed narrative… This book is a story about storytelling, about the process of creating a narrative out of disorder, and about all the people that help shape that narrative along the way.”

This is book #35 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Three stories by Gervásio Kaiser

native dancesao tome and principeFinding a book to read from São Tomé and Príncipe wasn’t easy. When Ann Morgan did her challenge of reading a book from every country back in 2012, she couldn’t find any literature translated into English. In the end, she crowdsourced a translation of a novel in Portuguese, Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor (The House of the Shepherd). (Unfortunately, the translation isn’t publicly available.) I could read a book in Portuguese, but it takes me a while to read novels in Portuguese and since I’m trying to read a book from every country in one year, I’ll have to save my Portuguese reading for January. Luckily, the Soma Nami blog pointed me to short stories by Gervásio Kaiser. Kaiser was born and raised in São Tomé and Príncipe but has subsequently worked there, in the U.S., and in the Caribbean. Kaiser has three short stories that I could find.

Native Dance: An African Story” (also sold as “Dancing with Makengo”): This story opens with an arrest. Makengo is accused of attacking a woman with a knife, but claims to only have been defending the son of a woman he loves but who will pay him no mind. This was my favorite of Kaiser’s stories. He captures intercultural tensions as well as interpersonal ones, with just a touch of romance mixed in.

The Moor of Sankore (sometimes sold together with “The Stranger” as an ebook called Island Moors: Two African Short Stories): A student returns home to his own African country from Sankore University where he studies pre-Adamic studies (probably a reference to the ancient University of Sankoré). He is met with suspicion by a red-headed, blue-eyed interrogator. Once released, he and friends are engaged in a plot.

The Stranger: A dangerous stranger is in town, and he comes to face with one bold storekeeper and his dog.

I really enjoyed “Native Dance” and highly recommend it. (What’s more, in the US the ebook costs about $0.99 and will take you 10 minutes to read. You have almost nothing to lose!) I found the other two a little bit inscrutable.