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.

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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.

Read African Writers: Echoes from the Oasis, by A.R. Tirant

Echoes from the OasisseychellesForbidden love! Murder for profit! Gorgeous landscapes! Shipwrecks! Passion! War! Woodworking! Nursing! Witchcraft! If this sounds like your cup of tea, then A.R. Tirant’s historical romance — Echoes from the Oasis — might be the book for you. Tirant lived in the Seychelles for the first 37 years of her life, before migrating to the UK. In her book, she draws a rich picture of her childhood home, the island of Mahé, with her story of a nature-loving nurse, Anna, who falls in love with a wealthy merchant’s son, Louis, on the eve of World War I.

Tirant’s deep love for the natural beauty of her home shines through. This is her first novel, and the prose isn’t elegant, but she gets the job done. Occasionally I wished for more context: When a white man is sentenced to death for the murder of a black man, the narrator notes that “it was not every day that a white man would hang for the murder of a black man on the island.” I wanted to understand more of those dynamics. And sometimes I wished for more character development: one character advocates for a return to slavery with little context, and Anna’s mother reacts violently to a choice made by her daughter towards the end of the book with little precedent.

But those points aside, the book ends on a cliffhanger and I’ll admit that Tirant left me longing to know how things turn out. (The next book in the series is not yet out.)

This is book #33 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

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.

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.