Read African Writers: Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna

ancestor stonessierra leoneA young woman living in the U.K. receives a letter informing her that her grandfather’s coffee plantation now belongs to her. The letter has no return address. “Knowingly, he had denied me the opportunity to write back with ready excuses, to enclose a cheque bloated with guilty zeroes.” When she returns to her unnamed West African home country (actually Sierra Leone), four of her aunts — all daughters to polygamous wives of the same man — share their life stories. And so, Sierra Leonean and Scottish writer Aminatta Forna’s novel, Ancestor Stones, reads more like a collection of stories than a novel. But the stories give Forna the opportunity to explore diverse nooks and crannies of Sierra Leonean life, from the 1920s up to the turn of the century. Forna’s prose is beautiful as usual. (My favorite of hers remains The Memory of Love, a later novel) I initially had some trouble keeping track of the different stories; as Bernardine Evaristo wrote in the Guardian, “it’s easy to get lost.” But once I surrendered myself to the flow, enjoying each story as it came, I could appreciate — again in the words of Evaristo — Forna’s “inspired storytelling and beautifully crafted prose.” Ultimately I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Two passages take place at polling stations, in sharp contrast. In one, early on, a young woman manages a polling center. “With an hour to go before the election was over, two votes lay in the cavern of the ballot box, like visitors in an empty church. So I spent the remainder of the time filling it up: creating signatures and using up the fingers of one hand and then the other and finally each of my toes to create fictional thumb prints. At six o’clock I closed the door and waited for the box to be collected. I kept my inky hands folded behind my back while the men heaved it into the back of a van along with the others.” It turned out that most of the country voted along ethnic lines, with the exception of this one polling center. Later in the book, a middle-aged woman manages a polling center with her friend and soldiers seek to steal the votes, but she stands firm, only to see the country descend into violence. The book is filled with finely observed moments such as these.

Go read The Memory of Love first. But if you want more Forna — and I’m betting you will — come back and read Ancestor Stones.

Bits and pieces
  • 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.”

Read African Writers: The Challenge for Africa, by Wangarĩ Maathai

the challenge for africakenyaThe 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.

Read African Writers: Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

kintuugandaIf you think that sprawling, multi-generational family sagas where characters have multiple names is the exclusive realm of Russian novelists, think again. Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi of Uganda, begins with a man killed by a mob in the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, in the early 2000s. Swiftly, Makumbi takes us back to to the 1750s, when Kintu — the ancestor of his modern-day clan — incurs a curse. We then return to modern times and observe how the curse plays out in different branches of Kintu’s descendants.

Kintu isn’t short, and it isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. The reason that it isn’t easy is because it wasn’t written for me. As Bwesigye wa Mwesigire, another Ugandan writer, notes, “Makumbi manages to dress up a Luganda novel in English words.” Literary scholar Aaron Bady comments, “The main thing to know, simply, is that this novel was written for Ugandans.” Mwesigire goes on, “Kintu’s oral aesthetic goes beyond its language, however, and into its story, which comprises a collection of origin myths and folk tales, many of which Makumbi has created, and a number of which she reinterprets, rewrites and turns upside down.”

There is sweet humor here, as when Kintu and other men of the village give his son a remarkably frank and respectful sex talk before his marriage. But there is also great tragedy — rape and incest and more. Not graphic nor gratuitous, but witnessed or implied. Like many well written big novels, Makumbi touches on a wide range of contemporary issues without it feeling like she’s checking items off a list. When Isaac, one of Kintu’s modern-day descendants, fears that his wife has died of HIV/AIDS and gets tested but is afraid to read the results, he says to a friend, “Blood tests bring nothing but certainty. We could not handle certainty. When all you have is a tiny doubt, you hang onto it.” (This is reminiscent of American poet Danez Smith’s lines about a positive HIV test: “give me a moment of not knowing, sweet piece of ignorance, i want to go back to the question, sweet if of yesterday bridge back to maybe.”) Or when one character’s children opt to drop out of school: “Ssemata’s sons, having been vexed by study, asked if every successful man in the world was educated. When the answer came back negative, they dropped out of school. Besides, education took too long to yield results.” Much of life spills out of these pages.

Definitely read Kintu. But don’t start a week before your book club. If you do, then — as one character said — “May you have luck the way millipedes have legs.”

Reviews in Western outlets
  • 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.”
Reviews in African outlets
  • 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.”
This is book #19 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Saturday Is for Funerals, by Unity Dow and Max Essex

img_8657img_8658In 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.”

Read African Writers: A General Theory of Oblivion, by José Eduardo Agualusa

general theory of oblivionangola“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.

Read African Writers — The Marriage of Anansewa and Edufa: Two Plays by Efua Sutherland

marriage of anansewa and edufaghanaIn 1967, Ghanaian playwright Efua T. Sutherland published Edufa, a play in which the title character, Edufa, seeks to ward off death but accidentally causes his wife Ampoma’s death instead. (There’s a nice synopsis of the play on p53-54 of Nugah’s study.) The story echoes the Greek myth of Alcestis, although I was reminded of at least one aspect of Stephen King’s novel Thinner. I was struck by Ampoma’s speech: “We spent most of our days preventing the heart from beating out its greatness. The things we would rather encourage lie choking among the weeds of our restrictions. And before we know it, time has eluded us. There is not much time allotted us, and half of that we sleep. While we are awake we should allow our hearts to beat without shame of being seen living.”

In 1975, Sutherland published The Marriage of Anansewa, in which Ananse — father of the title character — promises his daughter to four men in order to collect their gifts but then must figure out a way to escape the dilemma. Ananse (or Anansi) stories play a large role in Ghanaian folklore. It’s a fun tale with a clever trickster at the heart of it. As the narrator recommends at the end, “Whether you found it interesting or not, do take parts of it away, leaving parts of it with me.”

I enjoyed reading these two plays (published together), and I recommend reading more about Sutherland’s life as a cultural figure and child right’s advocate here.

This is book #16 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers — There Is A Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan

south sudanthere is a countrySouth Sudan is the world’s youngest country, gaining its independence from the the Republic of the Sudan in 2011. With impressive speed, editor Nyuol Lueth Tong released this collection of short stories by South Sudanese authors in 2013. With a thoughtful introduction, seven stories, and a poem, the volume comes in at a slim 96 pages, readable in a day. It’s well worth the time. In his intro, Tong highlights that “fiction and poetry can provide a sense of place that readers would otherwise have never been able to imagine” and grapples with the challenge of defining South Sudanese literature in a country with “more than sixty languages” and significant groups of people practicing “local belief systems” along with Islam and Christianity.

The stories provide a lovely, varied picture of the country. In Samuel Garang Akau’s “Light of Day,” we enjoy the playful, awkward back-and-forth of young love in a refugee camp. In Nyuol Lueth Tong’s compelling story “The Bastard,” we see the other end of love, as a woman rejected by the father of her child is pushed into desperate circumstances. John Oryem’s “Potato Thief” may resonate with many readers who told the truth as children, only to be disbelieved and punished for a minor crime they didn’t commit (like the A-Team but in a potato patch). Taban Lo Liyong’s “Lexicographicide” reminds us that fiction is not ethnography with a perplexing, enjoyable, fantastical story about a state-issued dictionary, someone’s diary entries, and “a man who used to dodge taxes by behaving as if he was mad.”

You can read the introduction online here. You can read Victor Lugala’s story “Port Sudan Journal” here. This is book #15 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga

nervous conditionszimbabwe“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.”


Read African Writers: In the United States of Africa, by Abdourahman Waberi

united states of africadjiboutiIn Abdourahman Waberi’s novel, In the United States of Africa, the Djibouti-born and US-based writer hypothesizes a world where Africa is the wealthiest continent, with Europe and North America struggling with poverty and conflict. This upending of the current world order reminds this U.S. reader of just how much of his life is the product of historical chance, as the narrator observes that

Today even more than yesterday, our African lands attract all kinds of people crushed by poverty: trollops with their feet powdered by the dust of exodus; opponents of their regimes with a ruined conscience; mangy kids with pulmonary diseases; bony, shriveled old people. People thrown into the ordeal of wandering the stony paths of exile. People facing their own filth, all cracked inside, a crown of nettles in place of a brain.

Or, when a character dares to visit the dangerous land of France, she sees — outside her hotel — “little blonde girls in want of customers offer up their thighs of orphaned sirens to the caresses of the wind.” In another chapter, from the perspective of the Europeans

Us, wanting and desiring, and begging to drink, eat, be nourished, live, urinate, defecate, belch, and even bathe in the blood of the industrial slaughterhouses of fat Africa, devoted to fitness and facelifts.

Besides this weighty content, the Waberi winks at us from time to time with familiar names, adapted to their African parallels: McDiops for fast food, Sarr Mbock’s for coffee, Hadji Daas for ice cream, and Haile Wade for movie productions.

This is all good. What I wished for was more plot, more action. The book is written as a series of letters, mostly to a young woman, Maya, born in France but adopted by Africans and rescued from her life of poverty. But not much actually happens, besides a visit to her hometown to find her birth mother towards the very end. So despite being just 123 pages, the limited movement made it more of an effort for me to get through. But I’m glad I read it. The translators from the French, David and Nicole Ball, employ a rich vocabulary that had me scurrying delightedly to my dictionary every few pages.

A few passages that stood out to me:
  • 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”
What other reviewers had to say:
  • 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.”
This is book #13 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

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.”