A major character in The Memory of Love makes an earlier, minor appearance here in Ancestor Stones — psychiatrist Adrian Lockheart!
Wise advice on marriage from one mother in the book: “My mother told me: ‘Before you are married keep both eyes open and after you are married close one eye.'”
On humor: “Gradually I learned what hardships people bore by the things they joked about.”
On becoming like your parents: “I had spent my whole life trying not to be like my mother. I had taken the opposite path and hurried along it, all the time looking over my shoulder instead of ahead, so that I failed to see how the path curved back again in the same direction.”
On Lagos — where one character makes a visit: “Lagos! It smelled quite like our city, and it looked and sounded a bit like it, too. But, oh, in every other way the difference between them was immense. Our city was a simple melody, whistled by a solitary man. Lagos was one hundred pipes, horns and drummers.”
On elections: “When, in a tarnished voice, he announced we were to have elections for the first time in many years few believed it, and many didn’t hear at all because they had given up listening a long, long time ago.”
On unkind words: “Quarrels end, but words once uttered never die.”
The late, great Dr. Wangarĩ Maathai has no shortage of accomplishments. Hailing from Kenya, she was the first East African woman to receive a PhD and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was a professor, a politician, and an activist. In 2009, just two years before her death, she published The Challenge for Africa, her broad vision of the challenges and solutions facing her continent. Dr. Maathai was an environmentalist and clearly believed that there was no lasting prosperity for the people of Africa without caring for the earth beneath their feet. This wide-ranging book provides thoughtful insights — born from years of experience — on a host of issues. I didn’t agree with every proposal (and her optimism about the Millenium Villages Project did not age well, in my opinion), but there is much of value here. Here are a few thoughts that stood out to me.
- On global responsibility to Africa: “Instead of milking the cow called Africa to death, everyone should feed, nurture, and love her so she can thrive and provide.”
- On local responsibility for African development: “Ultimately the fate of the continent depends on its citizens. It cannot be overemphasized: Africans must decide to manage their natural resources responsibly and accountably, agree to share them more equitably, and use them for the good of fellow Africans.”
- On history and colonialism: “Those who wrote the history of Africa that is taught in schools were often the perpetrators of the wrongs that were done and wrote from their perspective. Quite obviously, they preferred to ‘forget and move forward.'”
- On aid: “While I applaud the motives of the international community in providing technical and financial assistance to developing countries, including those in Africa, I do question how much good aid does versus how much damage it may do to the capacity of the African peoples to engineer their own solutions to their many problems.”
- On depictions of Africa in the media: “As someone who raises funds to support work in Africa, I understand the importance of images, and recognize that pictures of Africans in dire circumstances can, ultimately, lead to positive actions from those who are moved to want to help. However, on balance, I find these representations–and the associations they bring with them–demonstrably negative, perhaps even shameful, since they risk stereotyping all countries south of the Sahara as places of famine, death, and hopelessness. Because the children or adults pictured are rarely named, they people remain abstract, symbolic, and no longer individuals. That starving toddler or weeping mother or child soldier is ‘Africa.’ This projection only makes the task more difficult for those of us on the ground trying to help Africans to help themselves.”
- On the use of colonial languages: “Even if another national language has been adopted, such as Kiswahili in the case of Kenya, the great mass of rural populations neither speak nor understand it fluently. It is my belief that denying someone the ability to communicate with their government, at least at the local level, is one of the strongest forms of discrimination and, indeed, means of oppression and exclusion.”
- On climate change: “It is in repulsing the sands of deforestation and climate change that the genuine battle for national and human security lies.”
There is much more. I appreciated the book, although I did find myself wishing I had read her memoir, Unbowed. She lived an amazing life, and while we get glimpses of that here, I wished for more. I’m putting Unbowed on my “to read” list.
This is book #20 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.
Aaron Bady, Lit Hub: “Ugandans have waited a long time for Kintu to exist. Since it was first published in 2014, after winning the Kwani Manuscript Project, the enthusiasm with which Kintu has been received in Uganda has been difficult to describe but remarkable to witness… The main thing to know, simply, is that this novel was written for Ugandans.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review): “A masterpiece of cultural memory, Kintu is elegantly poised on the crossroads of tradition and modernity.”
African Queer, Rewrite: “What makes Kintu particularly unique is how it approaches its various topical areas, with as much naturalness and ordinariness in discussion of Baganda traditional culture as would be expected of a book written within the more readily accepted Western traditions. Makumbi does not turn to the traditional as the source of an unfamiliar and distant past, but rather as an ever-living present.”
Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire (a Ugandan), Johannesburg Review of Books: “Makumbi’s art, her oral aesthetics, are highly sophisticated, requiring more than the bland generic Anglophone novel, manufactured in the MFA factory, does. While the latter has perpetuated a myth of what is ‘marketable’ in world fiction, part of the joy of Kintu is that it’s stuff is what universal stories are made of. What Luganda speakers hear when they read the novel is not entirely out of reach to non-Luganda speakers, precisely because of its fable-like qualities.”
Solomon Asaba, New Times (Rwanda): [This “book review” is merely a summary, including a summary of the book’s ending, with no value judgments.]
Itumeleng Molefi, Business Day (South Africa): “Kintu is a triumph and will surely leave a mark on the African literature landscape that will be felt for generations to come.”
In the late 1990s, more than 30 percent of young adults in Botswana were infected with HIV. In the early 2000s, every Saturday was reserved for funerals. Subsequently, medication became available and far fewer people died, but high HIV infection rates persisted. Saturday Is for Funerals tells the stories and the science of the HIV epidemic in Botswana. Unity Dow, at the time a High Court judge in Botswana, opens each chapter with a story from someone affected by the HIV crisis. Max Essex, a pioneer in HIV research both globally and specifically in Botswana, ends each chapter with the research related to the phenomenon from Dow’s story. Together, they paint a powerful picture of Botswana both before and after AIDS drugs were available.
Essex’s writing is strongest when focused on medical rather than social aspects, and most of his sections do that. (There some repetition in Essex’s sections as well, but it’s not a fatal flaw.) The final chapter demonstrates the power of political leadership in changing the course of the epidemic in Botswana.
This is both valuable in helping readers to understand the dynamics of a society with staggering rates of HIV and as a largely successful model of how to mesh anecdotes and scientific research to give a fuller picture of a phenomenon.
Here is what other critics had to say:
Publishers Weekly: “Although occasionally repetitive, this richly informative book dispels much of the mystery still surrounding HIV/AIDS, revealing how life goes on for those infected. Readers overwhelmed by (and even numbed to) the images of desolation that accompany coverage of the epidemic will find a realistic but optimistic assessment of a society successfully tackling the problem and a model for other afflicted nations.”
Jennifer Rosenbush, Africana: “While much of the content in this book has cross-cultural resonance, Saturday is for Funerals is truly a story of Botswana and its people. Perhaps most importantly, this book depicts a success in the fight against HIV/AIDS. It presents more than glimmer of hope in an area of the world that is often depicted as hopeless. This valuable addition to the literature is accessible to lay people would be of great value to students in a range of disciplines.”
“I’ve seen things in this city that would be too much even in a dream.” José Eduardo Agualusa’s wonderful novel — A General Theory of Oblivion, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn — feels like a dream, a strange alternative reality from which I didn’t want to stir.
Ludo, a middle-aged Portuguese woman, lives in Luanda, Angola, with her sister and her sister’s Angolan husband. When the war for independence breaks out, Ludo’s sister and brother-in-law disappear and — after an attempted robbery — Ludo locks herself in her apartment. For years. Agualusa leads us through Ludo’s struggle for survival along with a series of other tales that intertwine, some sooner, some later. This is a novel of tragedy and suffering, and it is a novel of dreams and poetry and hope, with just a touch of humor and fantasy mixed in. It is lyrical and surprising and I did not want it to end.
This book was on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. (It lost to Han Lang’s The Vegetarian, which I liked but not as much as this.) It is inspired by a true story.
A few lines that stayed with me
- “Women have more power, here, than people think.”
- “A man with a good story is practically a king.”
- “God invented music so poor people could be happy.”
- “Our capital is full of mysteries. I’ve seen things in this city that would be too much even in a dream.”
What other reviewers had to say
- Claire Kohda Hazelton, The Guardian: “Beautifully sprawling and poetic.”
- Jane Bradley, The Scotsman: “Agualusa’s writing is a delight throughout, as he opens up the world of Portuguese-speaking Africa to the English-speaking community. And what a world it is.”
- Jeff Bursey, Numero Cinq magazine: “This short novel, written with confidence and poise, contains sharply sketched characters, an evolving and engaging main narrative around Ludo, and years of conflict succinctly summarized and easily understandable.”
- Matthew Lecznar, Africa in Words: “Agualusa creates a rich, moving tale in A General Theory of Oblivion, where people, objects, and memories circulate and collide, and where nothing is ever quite as it seems. It is the story of a community of souls struggling to stay rooted even as legacies of violence threaten to tear them apart.”
- Jennifer Bort Yacovissi, Washington Independent Review of Books: “Agualusa originally wrote this story as a screenplay, and the novel retains that sense of immediacy. Certainly his economy of words heightens its impact.”
- Dustin Illingworth, The Quarterly Conversation: “A General Theory of Oblivion is both more and less than its title; it certainly provides a kind of blueprint of the encroaching obscurity inherent to living and dying—at times bemoaning its certainty, at times celebrating the assured darkness—but it is also a general theory of love, of life, and, finally, of literature. Working in the fertile ground between fiction, philosophy, and enchantment, Agualusa has accomplished something strange and marvelous here, a whirling dervish of joy and pain, blood and memory, whose many high points I found myself re-reading immediately, eager to experience the shine of the prose like spun gold. It left me in awe of these stories we tell ourselves: those we need to survive, those that change us, and those that change with us.”
This is book #17 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.
“I was not sorry when my brother died.” Thus begins Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions, set in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in the 1960s and 70s. Dangarembga’s novel, first published in 1988, comes with distinction: It was “the first novel to be published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman” and is ranked 66 on the BBC’s poll of novels that “shaped mindsets or influenced history.” The novel traces how a preteen girl, Tambu, responds as she consistently faces deep currents of gender inequality, as well as her reactions to European education and culture. Early in the book, Tambu’s parents lack the funds to send both their older children to school, so they send only her brother. Her mother tells her, “When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them.” Tambu, dissatisfied with this state of affairs, decides to grow some maize on a small plot and sell it to finance her own education, to her father’s consternation. This is the beginning of her industrious rebellion. Step by step, Tambu works her way up, but she faces discrimination every step of the way.
We spend a lot of time in Tambu’s head; this book is not driven by action. But ultimately, Tambu’s subtle insurrections and insights she shares merited the read. I look forward to reading the two sequels, The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.
Here is what a few other reviewers had to say:
- Ash, Speaking Across Centuries: “All in all, it was a good read with an interesting perspective I hadn’t before considered. I would not say it was a favorite.”
- M.A. Orthofer, Complete Review: “Nervous Conditions is a powerful work and very fine piece of writing.”
- Alexia Ternate, The Guardian: “This book introduces us to many numerous struggles that women experience… It surely is a must-read book.”
- BookShyBooks: “I wouldn’t call it a page-turner, but it really makes you think about gender and society.”
- Publishers Weekly: “This novel becomes Tambu’s keening–a resonant, eloquent tribute to the women in her life, and to their losses.”
On travel writers: “You’re neither a tourist nor an ethnologist, still less one of those so-called travel writers who traipse all over the planet in search of utopias, heavenly oases, and stories to steal.”
On sculpture: “Of all the plastic arts, sculpture is the one that goes furthest in the imitation of divine creation. At the beginning was the emotion embodied in the clay.”
On uselessness: “As useless as the king in an incomplete deck of cards”
M.A. Orthofer, The Complete Review: “Waberi’s ‘United States of Africa’ makes for a marvelous and highly entertaining — and thought-provoking — backdrop, but the narrative itself is less sure-footed… If not an entirely successful work of fiction, the short In the United States of Africa is nevertheless well worth reading.”
Sofia Samatar, Islam and Science Fiction: “There’s a certain amount of glee in this reversal of stereotypes, but the novel is more than just an extended joke. It is, itself, a mirror. In its pages, a reader of any background will see herself or himself reflected in the body of the other.”
Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Journal of the African Literature Association: “Abourahman’s…masterpiece is undoubtedly In the United States of Africa.
Ryan Michael Williams, PopMatters: “Despite the fact that neither plot nor characters seem especially important to Waberi, his considerable ability as a stylist helps keep his novel consistently engaging. In David and Nicole Ball’s translation, Waberi’s prose reads as both riotously funny and lyrically lush, offering big laughs as well as multifaceted subtleties of expression.”
The African Book Review: “Brilliant and short yet written with an elegant simplicity that belies great depth, it’s a novel aimed for the critical thinker in all of us.”
Publishers Weekly: “Waberi manages to convince of the power of art and love to heal very real rifts.”
Three Percent: “This novel is not perfect, but it is imperfect in a very acceptable and forgiving way. The lofty aim and the mechanics Waberi uses emphasize his talent as a writer and his responsibility as a writer. To make us think in a different way about the world we live in, but rarely question. For moral integrity alone, this book deserves to be on the longlist.”