Read African Writers — The Sea-Migrations: Tahriib, by Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf

Sea-MigrationssomaliaAsha Lul Mohamud Yusuf writes powerful, evocative poetry. She fled civil conflict in Somalia in 1990 and emigrated to the UK. In her brief collection (just 17 poems) — The Sea-Migrations: Tahriib, with the original Somali poems on the left and the English translations on the right, Yusuf traverses despair about Somalia’s ongoing conflicts, the importance of journalists, love, and — repeatedly — frustration with Somalia’s leaders and longing prayers for better representatives. Like much good poetry, much of what she writes both applies to Somalia’s challenges and transcends them. When she writes, in “The Writer’s Rights,” that

Journalists were jailed…
Injustice is infectious,
your children are not safe,
your elders are not safe,
they will wipe out your women.

I was reminded of German pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a socialist…”

In “Thirst,” when she writes of

This man we selected
to…serve as our ruler
turns out to be shoddy
with a squirming brain
and a slumbering conscience
who can’t refrain from causing shame.

I couldn’t help but think of other countries who have turned to boorish, embarrassing leaders in recent years. And, much more locally, when she writes in “The Scab” that “I’m not prepared to give you a poem which is a half-empty milk-vessel full of unsealable holes,” I remembered how I feel when people ask for early versions of my own writing.

Of course, translations — especially poetry translations — are an art of their own. Clare Pollard, a skilled poet in her own right, has translated these, with input from Said Jama Hussein and Maxamed Xasan ‘Alto’. Her introductory essay on the translation process is fascinating in its own right, as is Sarah Maguire opening essay on how Yusuf fits into Somalia’s rich poetic tradition. Don’t miss the glossary at the end, either!

You can listen to both the original Somali and the English translation of one of the poems — “Disorientation” — read by Yusuf and Pollard here.

Here is what a few other reviewers had to say:

Maria Castro Domínguez, Mslexia: “Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf´s poetry collection The Sea-Migrations Tahriib is an exhilirating exploration of Somalia, its culture, its nature, its politics and its people; all conjured by Asha´s shining language creatively translated with an update style by another brilliant poet, Clare Pollard,  which brings it much closer to the reader. The original poems and their translation sit side by side allowing us to capture form, space and sound –so essential to poetic meaning- all at once. Both poets make magic together.”

Momtaza Mehri, Poetry London: “The Sea-Migrations is a narratively fertile collection that confronts the silences of national traumas. In these poems, grief announces itself. Yusuf, however, is never exploitative or gratuitous in her depiction of the violence of refugee life. Her verses are imbued with an unswerving responsibility to honour the suffering of her people… The Sea-Migrations is a compelling addition to the growing canon of diasporic Somali voices as well as a powerful reminder that exile is something generations of refugees carry with them, whether they want to or not.” (There’s a lot of useful analysis in this review.)

Jeremy Noel-Tod, The Times: “Sometimes a book reminds us of poetry’s real electric force in the world.  Yusuf is a brilliant young Somali poet living in exile in London, who takes ‘history’s point/to ink a beautiful literature.’… Translated into lapel-grabbing alliterative verse by Clare Pollard, these piercingly direct poems throw open a window onto a war-torn country and its wretchedly displaced people.”

Carol Rumens, The Guardian: “Performance poetry often dies on the page. But the work of Somalian poet Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf is an exception, strengthened by a highly craft-conscious, perhaps troubadour-like, oral culture. Though the rhetoric is impassioned and the diction down-to-earth, there are no simplistic politics lectures in her dual-language, Somali-English collection.”

Read African Writers: The Attack, by Yasmina Khadra

attackalgeriaDr. Amin Jaafari is a surgeon. He is an Arab and a naturalized Israeli citizen. He and his wife live a happy, secular life. One day, he finds out that his wife has blown herself and a fast food restaurant filled with schoolchildren up in a suicide bomb attack. In Yasmin Khadra’s The Attack, Dr. Jaafari seeks answers both within himself and from members of Arab community in Israel. In the process, Khadra — originally from Algeria — shines a light on the enduring Arab-Israeli conflict. I found this book illuminating and often engaging. The pacing slowed in the middle, and occasionally I wished for a little less thinking and a little more action. But ultimately, the insights and an occasionally lovely turn of phrase — I “stare unwaveringly at the opalescent streaks gently lifting the horizon’s coattails” at sunrise — won me over. I enjoyed John Cullen’s English translation and Stefan Rudnicki’s narration of the audiobook.

Here are some passages that stood out to me:
  • On violence: “The only battle I believe in is the battle the surgeon fights, which consists in recreating life in the place where death has chosen to conduct its manoeuvres.”
  • On the motivations of terrorists: “I think even the most seasoned terrorists really have no idea what has happened to them. And it can happen to anyone. Something clicks somewhere in their subconscious, and they’re off. Their motives aren’t all equally solid, but generally, whatever it is, it comes over them like that… Either it falls on your head like a roof tile or it attaches itself to your insides like a tapeworm. Afterward, you no longer see the world the same way. You’ve got only one thing on your mind: the thing that has taken you over, body and soul.”
  • On God: “I couldn’t bring myself to accept the notion that God could incite his subjects to take up arms against one another and reduce the exercise of faith to an absurd and frightening question of power relationships.”
  • On dreams: “He who dreams too much forgets to live.”
Here are some other reviews:
  • The Complete Review: “The final truth, and all the consequences are fairly well handled, and the novel packs a decent punch by the end.” (The Complete Review also excerpts a number of other reviews.)
  • James Buchan, The Guardian: “With the exception of Dr Yehuda, Moulessehoul’s Jews are louts. His Arabs strike heroic poses. There is none of that peculiarity of place, person and history that you find in an Israeli Arab writer such as the late Emile Habiby.”
  • Janet Maslin, New York Times: “painfully acute observations of Arab-Israeli strife…  This book is also gripping and dynamic in ways that rivet the reader even when the thinking is didactic and the prose takes a purplish turn.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Khadra…turns his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this moving novel unlikely to satisfy partisans on either side of the issue.”
  • The New Yorker: “Khadra’s writing has a tendency toward cliché, but the book’s dark vision of the conflict is powerful.”
This is book #11 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: La Bastarda, by Trifonia Melibea Obono

bastardaequatorial guinea“Don’t forget that your mother is dead, your father is a scoundrel, and you’re a bastarda.” Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda is the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English. If that weren’t enough to get you to read it, how about knowing that it’s been banned in the author’s home country? And if you want more, how about that it’s good?! (And short, coming in at just over one hundred pages.)

Okomo’s mother died in childbirth, and she’s never met her father. This places her on the outskirts on her ethnic group, the Fang. Over the course of the book, she encounters other people at the margins, particularly the local, outcast gay community. When one character asks how she, as a lesbian, fits into Fang culture, an uncle tells her, “There isn’t a word for it. It’s like you don’t exist.” Okomo’s journey takes her far beyond the borders of her village and explores what it means to carve out a place for yourself as an orphan and as a gay person in one African society. The prose is simple, appropriate to the adolescent narrator, and Lawrence Schimel’s translation into English is clear. Historian Abosede George has a nice afterword, putting the book into context.

You can read more about the book here, and you can read about the author here. You can read an excerpt here, but come on, the book is just 100 pages: Go ahead and read it already.

This is book #10 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Here are some notable passages:
  • On early marriage: “Dina is on the brink of old age—she is eighteen years old and has no husband!”
  • On the universal truth of parties: “That’s when I discovered the worst part of parties: cleaning up.”
  • On non-sexual intimacy: “We spent some time in silence, letting our bodies talk.”
  • How not to open a letter asking your daughter for money: “Daughter, Your marriage is the biggest mistake you’ve made in your whole life.”
  • On a traditional healer: “After bankrupting her, the curandera sent her to the hospital.”
  • On youth: “Your opinion doesn’t count; your elders are always right.”
  • On the metal ceiling: In that makeshift town, I discovered that the better-paying jobs were all held by men. Women were limited to cleaning and cooking. And also: prostitution.”
Here is what other people thought of the book:
  • Publishers Weekly: “Slim yet undeniably potent… Obono’s voice is assured and vital, and her tale of queer rebellion in Fang society is an exceptional take on the coming-of-age novel.”
  • Karina Szczurek, Africa in Words: “Obono’s writing itself is an act of inspiration and should be celebrated as such. Her narrator tells the story in a fresh, mesmerising voice. Its haunting quality adds to the irresistibility of this slim book and its considerable impact.”
  • Silvia Cruz Lapeña, Altair: “Escuchar la voz de una ecuatoguineana lesbiana es el principal valor de La bastarda porque entre los suyos, los fang, entorno del que procede la autora, ni siquiera hay una palabra para referirse a ellas… Otra de las fuerzas de esta novela radica en que se carga en pocas páginas la imagen de mujer sumisa que se da de las africanas.”

Read African Writers: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, by Laila Lalami

hopemoroccoWe open on an inflatable boat, making the dangerous crossing from Morocco to Spain. Dozens of migrants are aboard, but we are introduced to just four: Murad, a college graduate who majored in English, Faten, who flunked out of school; Aziz, a married man; and Halima, who has brought her two children. The boat capsizes and the passengers must swim to shore.

Laila Lalami’s collection — Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits — then flashes back, with a chapter on what led each of these four to make the perilous journey; and then forward, with a chapter on what happened to each after the attempted migration. Some made it safely to Spain; some got sent back to Morocco. But in whichever locale, Lalami draws engaging, sympathetic characters and humanizes their motivations for migrating. Most central is the desire to work: “He knew, in his heart, that if only he could get a job, he would make it, he would be successful.” The fantasy isn’t just for money, but for purpose: “Aziz imagined that maybe one day he would be like them, have a car and a place to go to, instead of sitting idle at a coffee shop while his wife was at work.” I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Highly recommended, particularly in this time when refugees and migrants are at the center of many nation’s policy debates.

Here are some lines that I enjoyed:
  • On patience: “Halima wondered whether all the Lord ever wanted from His people was patience. Hadn’t she suffered long enough? She was sure that the Lord also wanted His people to be happy, but she couldn’t come up with a stock expression as a retort, the way her mother always did.”
  • On having a child veer toward fundamentalism: “What if he lost her to this … this blindness that she thought was sight?”
  • On economics: “What happened to your plans to study economics? … Look, you’ll be of more help [to your country] as an economist than as a schoolteacher.”
  • On the uncertain returns to adult literacy classes: “So far, the only use she had gotten out of the classes was that she could now read the rolling credits at the end of the soap operas she watched every night.”
  • On loving Western culture: “We’re so blinded by our love for the West that we’re willing to give them our brightest instead of keeping them here where we need them.”
  • On money: “That was the thing with money. It gave you choices.”

Here are some other reviews:

  • Joey Rubin, Bookslut: “Hope is not a tale of desperate immigration, nor of destructive encroachment. It is a tale of human potential; a story about the desire for improvement, and the difficulties inherent in the pursuit of such a dream — whether that dream be American, Moroccan, or just plain human.  However, we are lucky in this case it is Moroccan; it is a landscape Lalami knows quite well.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Less a novel than a set of finely detailed portraits, this book gives outsiders a glimpse of some of Moroccan society’s strata and the desperation that underlies many ordinary lives.“
  • Kirkus Reviews: “As her characters debate hot-button issues—How much Western culture is too much? Should women wear headscarves?—their individual points of view are presented so evenhandedly that readers are left to wonder which of these opinions are actually held by the Moroccan-born writer, who now lives in Oregon.”
  • Alan Cheuse, NPR: “This all works because the force of the subject matter carries the day.”
This is book #9 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz

the queueegyptWelcome to a totalitarian regime with a byzantine bureaucracy that centers on one very long queue. Basma Abdel Aziz’s beautiful and maddening tale features Yehya, a man who was shot during a series of unnamed “disgraceful events.” In order to get surgery to remove the bullet — or to obtain any of a mass of services — he and thousands of others have to go and wait in line (the queue). People sleep in the queue. “Everyone expected the queue to move at any minute, and they wanted to be ready.” Yehya’s friends try to circumvent the bureaucracy, but the results are frustrating at best and violent at worst.

In the midst of all this, certain “riffraff” begin agitating for change, but most of those in the queue wish they would go away. “Life in the queue had been relatively orderly and stable before the Riffraff’s arrival; there were recognized rules and limits, which everyone accepted and everyone followed.” Better the gridlock you know than the upheaval you don’t?

Elisabeth Jaquette translated the book into English, and Mark Bramhall narrates the competent audiobook.

Highly recommended.

Here are a couple of other bits:
  • On official government statistics: “Those conducting the poll had therefore decided not to conduct one again. To simplify matters, they would announce the previous poll’s results on a set yearly date.”
  • On obtaining documents from the government: “Obtaining any document from that place was like plucking a piece of meat from the mouth of a hungry lion.”
  • On addressing symptoms rather than causes of problems: “Officials were investigating the possibility of placing parasols near places of heavy traffic, to calm citizens’ nerves and reduce their irritability.”
If I haven’t convinced you, check out what these other reviewers have to say:

Carmen Maria Machado, NPR: “The Queue is the newest in this genre of totalitarian absurdity: helpless citizens — some hopeful, some hopeless — struggling against an opaque, sinister government, whose decrees, laws, propaganda, and red tape would be comical if they weren’t so deadly serious.”

Pasha Malla, Globe and Mail: “Basma Abdel Aziz’s novel is not simply an exegesis on the state of her homeland, but a much more universal evocation of the relationships between hegemonic power and grassroots dissent. It feels both fitting and faintly tragic that she had to resort to the literature of dark fantasy to convey it.”

Publishers Weekly: “At its best, the novel captures a sense of futility and meaninglessness, but its impersonal tone and uneventful middle contribute, at times, to a lack of urgency.”

Read African Writers: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

Shining GirlsSouth AfricaTime traveling serial killer! In South African writer Lauren Beukes’s thriller, a drifter from 1930s Chicago discovers a house with a murderous agenda. (That aspect reminded me of David Mitchell’s Slade House.) Beukes takes us back and forth in time, narrating from the perspective of Harper, the killer, and his various victims. Some of them don’t go quietly. The ending includes delightful ambiguity. Along the way, we can see ourselves in the characters’ exchanges.

“I’m scared, Mom.”

“We all are,” Rachel says. … “Shhh. It’s okay, honey. It’s all right. That’s the big secret, don’t you know? Everyone is. All the time.”

This was a quick, exciting read, based on enormous research about the city of Chicago, as Beukes lays out in her note at the end.

Bits and pieces:

  • As another entry of economists in popular culture, one of the victims is studying economics as Northwestern University and police find “Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics” in her backpack. Remember that Rachel Chu of Crazy Rich Asians also studied economics at Northwestern. I wonder if they knew each other?
  • “The problem with snapshots is that they replace actual memories. You lock down the moment and it becomes all there is of it.”

Here is what a few other reviewers had to say:

  • Alan Cheuse, NPR: “Beukes has done tremendous research about the long span of Chicago time in which her story occurs, and carefully constructed the eccentric and brilliant plot.”
  • Ben Hamilton, The Guardian: “The killing is so brutal and pitiless that it threatens to overwhelm the rest of the novel… This is an entertaining novel that will be read with keen attention, but the reader may end up slightly confused by the meaning of it all.”
  • Janet Maslin, New York Times (and this is a great review overall): “Once Ms. Beukes gets her chronological tricks working at full blast, Harper’s [the killer’s] methods become maddeningly effective.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Beukes is particularly good at garnering sympathy for Harper’s female victims, creating deep characterizations in only a few pages, so that they come across as more than just fodder for a psychopath’s mission.”

This is book #7 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Woman of the Ashes, by Mia Couto

woman of the ashesmozambiqueMia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes — a historical novel — recounts a conflict in the closing days of a major African empire. In the late 19th century in what is now Mozambique, the empire (called the “state of Gaza”) resists the rule of the Portuguese. Imani, the novel’s protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old girl who acts as interpreter for the Portuguese military representative as conflict is imminent. Her family is torn, as one of her brothers fights for the Portuguese and the other for the African empire and as her . This is the first book in a trilogy: the second book is already out in Portuguese. David Brookshaw produced the English translation of Woman of the Ashes. I listened to the audiobook (narrated by Bahni Turpin and Joel Richards) and sometimes got a little lost in the plot, but the prose was gorgeous. Here are a few lines that stood out:

  • “Before long our nation will be a jumble of scars, a map forged by so many blows that we shall be more proud of the wounds than of the unblemished body we may yet save.”
  • “The difference between war and peace is as follows: in war, the poor are the first to be killed; in peace, the poor are the first to die. For us women, there’s another difference too: in war, we get raped by those we do not know.”
  • Men “are scared when women talk, and even more scared when women stay silent.”
  • “To describe the decrepit building as a ‘barracks’ can only stem from some huge distortion that fails to distinguish between fact and desire.”
  • “My father was a tuner of the infinite marimba that is the world.”
  • “Some of us humans share the same fate: we die inside, and are only held together by our similarity to the living we once were.”
  • “Wars never begin. When we awaken to them, we realize they started long ago.”
  • “War is a midwife: from the insides of the world, it causes another world to emerge.”
  • “Dark memories are like an abyss: no one should lean too far over them.”

Filipe Nyusi, current president of Mozambique, said this of the book: “It is better for us to awaken the ghosts than for the ghosts to awaken us.” (Actually, he said, “Mais vale sermos nós a despertarmos fantasmas que fantasmas a despertarem a nós.”)

Here is what a few other reviewers had to say:
  • Publishers Weekly: “a fascinating, intricate story”
  • Sheila Glaser, New York Times: “Couto conjures what he has described as the ‘many and small stories’ out of which history is made, offering a profound meditation on war, the fragility of empire and the ways in which language shapes us.”
  • Kirkus Review: “A rich historical tale thick with allegory and imagery that recalls Marquez and Achebe.”
  • Daniel Bokemper, World Literature Today: “A beautiful and grotesque force interweaving history with myth.”
  • Luísa Gadelha, Diario Centro do Mundo: “A leitura vale a pena tanto pelo prazer literário quanto pelo resgate histórico de Moçambique.”
  • Caíque Gomez, Poltrona Vip: “Mia Couto mistura história, mito e magia para narrar os horrores da guerra com uma linguagem muito poética, característica marcada do autor, como se ele quisesse nos reconfortar de alguma maneira, como se dentro desses horrores, ele nos devolvesse o humano.”
I plan to read (or listen to) the next book when it makes its way into English.
By the way, check out the Brazilian (left) and Portuguese (right) covers of the books. They win!