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.
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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.”

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.

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.