Read African Writers: The Lights of Pointe-Noire, by Alain Mabanckou

lights of pointe noirerepublic of the congoAlain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of the Congo — not the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the other one, sometimes referred to as Congo-Brazzaville. In his early 20s, he left to study in Paris. Later he moved to the teach in the United States. Then, after more than two decades away, he returned to his hometown, Pointe-Noire, for a visit. In his memoir of the visit — The Lights of Pointe-Noire (translated into English by Helen Stevenson), he artfully alternates between stories from his past and his experience of re-encountering family members, friends, mentors, and others. I’ve read many memoirs of growing up in Africa, some of them very good, but Mabanckou offers a lyricism that is mesmerizing and exceptional. I could have spent much longer with him on this visit.

My previous experience with Mabanckou has been mixed: I liked Black Moses moderately well and I couldn’t get through African Psycho. Some reviewers mention that characters in this book appear earlier in Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty. In this book, Mabanckou’s old high school philosophy teacher tells him that Memoirs of a Porcupine is his favorite of Mabanckou’s novels. After reading The Lights of Pointe-Noire, I’ll try some more of his work.

Here are a few passages that stood out to me. Only the last is in the author’s voice. The others are him recounting what others say to him over the course of his visit.
  • On shoes: “You know, Uncle, if you don’t have new sandals, you can’t get to school on time, you have to spend two hours in the street mending them and when you tell the teacher he won’t listen, he just says ‘little liar’, but it’s not true, I’m not a liar!”
  • On writing: “I don’t have that tapeworm in my gut that writers have, that eats away at their insides every day.”
  • On fertility in wartime: “Between you and me, babies still get born even when there’s oil and war in a country. The worst of it was, people went on making love even when people were falling like flies in the war. I expect you’ll be wondering: why didn’t they wait for the end of the war, to make love? Oh no, if you waited for the end of the war, people would forget how to make love, by the time the whole dirty war ended we’d be making love with animals!”
  • On American English: “We told the Americans they could do what they liked with our oil, we weren’t going to learn their weird English, where you talk through your nose, like you’ve got flu.”
  • On self-publishing: “I also packed the self-published books which had been given me by various local authors. I promised myself I would read them in Europe or America. There is always something enriching in the suffering of a creator who hopes his bottle thrown into the sea will one day reach its destination.”
The Complete Review has links to many other reviews of this book as well as choice excerpts. Here’s an excerpt from Suzi Feay’s review in the Financial Times: “The account is not linear but organic and spiralling, as Mabanckou ranges over his past according to whatever stimulus confronts him…. Sparklingly translated, this compact and artful memoir illustrates the universality of the maxim: you really can’t go home again.”

This is book #45 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.

Read African Writers: Missing in Action and Presumed Dead, by Rashidah Ismaili

missing in actionbeninRashidah Ismaili was born and spent her childhood in Cotonou, Benin. As a teenager, she married and moved to New York City. Over her career, she wrote poetry and short stories, taught and counseled. I read her poetry collection, Missing in Action and Presumed Dead. It’s a beautiful collection. Even when I was unsure of the meaning, I was struck by the powerful imagery, as in the final stanza of the final poem in the collection, “Correctus Historum”:

We will once again since our old songs
of joy. Call our gods to come to us
in a language we understand. And we
who have given to others so much,
give to ourselves our strength.
Our best. And beg our gods to
give us more to give to this world
we make with our own hands.

Of course, once in a while, I come across a poem that feels like it’s written just for me, as in Ismaili’s “Diaspora-1”:

“It is a mystery we are not sure to solve.
There is so much data to collect.
So many variables to consider.
We have read empirical studies,
comparative literature. They tell us…”

So true!

This is book #44 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Ultimate Tragedy, by Abdulai Silá (translated by Jethro Soutar)

ultimate tragedyguinea bissauOver the course of my project this year to read a book by an author from each of Africa’s 54 countries, I’m struck by how many countries have just one novel available in translation. The Ultimate Tragedy, by Abdulai Silá from Guinea-Bissau, is one example. As Efemia Chela writes, that’s “a lot of weight to bear.” The novel also has an extended history—written in 1984, published in 1995, and published in English — translated by Jethro Soutar — only in 2017.

 

Silá’s novel has a more discrete three-act structure than most: it feels almost like three novels in one. In the first act, my favorite, thirteen-year-old Ndani leaves her rural home to seek work as a housegirl in the capital, Bissau. With tenacity, she achieves a position where she is renamed and continuously mistreated by her white employers. Until, that is, the mistress of the house gets religion and shifts to evangelizing mode. This section gives a vivid, engaging, and occasionally lurid picture of race and class dynamics between the colonizers and their domestic workers.

 

In the second act, a community leader clashes with the Portuguese official above him as he seeks to improve his community. A new school in the community brings a teacher, who takes an interest in the leader’s wife — Ndani! In the third act, Ndani faces further trials in a new context. (To reveal more would spoil too much.)

 

I enjoyed The Ultimate Tragedy, especially the first act, and I look forward to more literature from Guinea-Bissau — including the rest of the trilogy that this book initiates — making it into the English language.

 

  • Efemia Chela, Johannesburg Review of Books: “The Ultimate Tragedyleaves a lot to be desired. The book overall is unmemorable, despite its interesting wordplay; the characters are not constructed with much depth; the plot feels familiar, its story fairly typical of many African works of fiction, but less inventive than the continent’s great novels.”
  • Jessie Stoolman, Asymptote: “The novel reads like an uninterrupted conversation about what the future holds for this nation, seemingly on the verge of liberation… The Ultimate Tragedy serves in many ways as a sort of literary privilege-check, introducing histories as well as literary/linguistic styles rarely given space on an international platform.”
  • Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “Translator Southar has done deft work to encourage the learning process that this text demands. By choosing to leave numerous words in their original language and trusting to the context to elucidate them, he encourages readers to let go of the guide rope of the narrative and become comfortable with the unfamiliar.”

This is book #43 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Fury and Cries of Women, by Angèle Rawiri (translated by Sara Hanaburgh)

fury and cries of womengabonAngèle Rawiri’s The Fury and Cries of Women — set in the Gabon where Rawiri lived much of her life and translated into English by Sara Hanaburgh — is focused on a trio of strong women. Emilienne, the protagonist, marries a man from a different ethnic group over the objections of both their families. She is a professional success and earns more money than her husband. While she bucks traditional values in many ways, she still has trouble escaping her society’s pressure to provide children, and when her one daughter goes missing, the pressure rises. Emilienne’s mother-in-law, a strong, unlikable presence, continually schemes to unite her son with a match more to her liking. Emilienne’s secretary, another woman fighting to survive, provides a shoulder to cry on which turns into more. Rawiri creates melodrama as she shows these women sometimes bowing to and other times battling the social forces around them. Emilienne encounters corruption (“I’ve learned that in order to succeed, anything goes, and, believe me, I will use all means necessary”), despair (“Emilienne was swimming with broad strokes in the stagnant waters of apathy”), prejudice (“I don’t trust those women who’ve been to the top-notch schools”), and the future of her continent (“What will become of Africa, incapable of self-governance, victim of natural disasters, and attacked from within by economic and financial crisis? The least one can say is that the future seems frightful. Africa’s belly will soon be as sterile as mine.”). The Fury and Cries of Women is a wild ride with a bold ending.

Rawiri is credited as being Gabon’s first novelist in the afterword by Cheryl Toman, a professor who specializes in African women’s writing. (Toman also translated the first novel by an African woman, Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury’s Essential Encounters.) This is Rawiri’s third and final novel. You can read more about her life here.

This is book #42 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, by Neshani Andreas

purple violet of oshaantunamibiaIn The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, Neshani Andreas of Namibia gives a fictional and evocative portrayal of women heading households as their husbands migrate to work for months at a time. The main character, Mee Ali, is a happily married mother who does her best to look out for her neighbor and friend, a younger mother named Kauna. But it’s not easy: Kauna’s husband cheats on her and physically abuses her. Early in the novel, he returns from a night with his mistress and dies suddenly. As the husband’s relatives gather to decide what will become of Kauna, her children, and their property, Mee Ali tells a series of anecdotes from the past — when Kauna sought advice from her mother after being abused, when an elder in the village boldly reprimanded Kauna’s husband, when Mee Ali accidentally uncovered a secret about Kauna’s husband’s work, and more. The andecdotes slow the momentum of the book, but the portrait of life for women in a society that is simultaneously patriarchal and managed day-to-day by women is multifaceted and insightful. Kauna’s refusal to show remorse for the late husband who abused her is bold and risky. Over the course of the narrative, we encounter a fifteen-year-old girl impregnated by her teacher (“Her own teacher!”), the social hierarchy that the church reveals (“church attire contrasts the haves and the have-nots”), dangerously overcrowded minibuses (“our people don’t care about us… All they care about is making money. A sixteen-seat minibus had twenty-eight people on board”), and disrespected teachers (“To think our own government could do this to me!”) and nurses (“I thought all nurses were witches and b****es until I met Sustera”).

Here are a couple more tidbits that struck me:
  • On English: “People said that it was the English language that had made him crazy.”
  • Early in the book, a character uses the idiom “okwa tulwa mo” which a footnote tells us means “under her thumb” (as in, a man is under his wife’s thumb), but which literally translates to “he is stuffed in her anus.”

This is book #41 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: Reading the Ceiling, by Dayo Forster

Reading the Ceilingthe gambiaMuch of my work centers on evaluating the impact of international development interventions. We’re always searching for what we call a “counterfactual,” or what would have happened to the beneficiaries of an intervention if they hadn’t received it. Sometimes, fiction writers create speculative counterfactuals of their own, as in Yaa Gyasi’s wonderful novel Homegoing, in which two half-sisters on the coast of Africa are separated as children and exposed to wildly different circumstances which affect many generations.

Reading the Ceiling, a novel by Gambian-born and raised author Dayo Forster, takes a different approach: In the opening of the novel, Ayodele is turning 18 in her home country of the Gambia, and she has “decided to do The Deed” — in other words, have sex for the first time. She considers three candidates: a school friend that she admires, the father of her best friend, and another classmate who clearly likes her and so serves as a “fall-back.” After just a few pages, she chooses her fall-back option and we watch how her life plays out, well into middle age. But at that point, we jump back in time and watch Ayodele choose her other school friend, and we see how her life plays out in that scenario. Finally, we see what happens when she chooses her best friend’s father. (It’s Sliding Doors — or a deeply elaborate Choose Your Own Adventure novel for a Gambian schoolgirl.) Despite the fact that relationships for 18-year-olds usually aren’t forever, her choice has dramatic implications and illustrates how unpredictable consequences can be, especially as they play out over the course of a life.

As a bonus for me (an economist), in one of the storylines Ayodele dates an econometrics professor who jokes “about correlating distance to the border with the number of nine-inch mortal holes you could find, and how it would make a perfect example of causality.” (Instrumental variables in fiction! I love it!) Another character brings up deworming: “It’s very hard to sit around debating the concept of joy if you are racked with worms.” There’s a “dandruffed member of the Economics Department” named Engelbert Druthers, and Ayodele struggles in her statistics class: “Any luck with the chi-squareds and ANOVAs?” Oh, and in one timeline, she has to deal with “nosy bureaucrats from the World Bank.” At one point in my career, I was a nosy bureaucrat from the World Bank working in the Gambia! (I’m basically in the book.) If this isn’t your thing, don’t worry: It takes up little of the book. But it was a treat for me.

In a lovely analysis that compares three books that explore alternative choices, Melissa McClements wrote in the Financial Times that “Forster has written a thought-provoking series of narratives that place nearly as much emphasis on education and career in women’s lives as they do on love.”

Here are a few more passages I enjoyed:
  • On polygamy: “There must be something to be said for a husband who, to be fair, has to spend half his nights with his other wife.’ I make a joke of it. ‘After all, I’ll get some time in my head that I can keep for myself.’”
  • On faith: “The texture of my faith has changed. I no longer expect everything of it… Yet I find I still believe.”
  • On commitment: “The moral of the story is, if you want something, don’t halfwant it. Either want it properly and go and get it, or forget about it so you will not be drawn into someone else’s magic and get the decision taken out of your hands.”

(As a bit of service journalism, the ebook costs just $0.99 on Amazon in the U.S., so expect major consumer surplus.)

This is book #40 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

Read African Writers: The Epic of Askia Mohammed, recounted by Nouhou Malio and edited and annotated by Thomas Hale

epic of askia mohammedNigerNouhou Malio was a griot — a “historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician” — from the nation of Niger. In 1981, he sat down with Thomas Hale and recounted The Epic of Askia Mohammed, which Hale then recorded, translated, edited and annotated. But it wasn’t easy: Much of the epic was told in the Songhay language, but one in five lines were “in archaic Soninké, the occult language of the Songhay, and perhaps other languages.” With help, Hale got almost all of this epic into English. Askia Mohammed was a ruler of the Songhay empire, based in Gao (a city in present-day Mali) from 1493 until 1528. The story is a wild ride. There’s a levitating city, protected by a hen (along with a python and an ox, but I was really focused on the bodyguard hen). Somebody gets called the “hat of a wild boar.” My favorite line, perhaps, was, “It is his head that is really a big head.” I know, I’m probably reveling too much in the different-ness of the story, but part of the pleasure here is the fact that the tale is so distinct from most modern fiction. It’s a unique, intriguing tale, and Hale provides both an essential summary in the introduction and detailed annotations for the reader who wants to dig deeper.

Ann Morgan gives a longer review: She concludes that The Epic is “a fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, read. At times bewildering and shocking, it is also enthralling. And despite the incompleteness of the text and the cultural mores that can leave the Western reader fumbling for the meaning, there are moments of magic where the pages seem to be stripped away and we are transported to sit in that village two miles south of the Nigerien capital Niamey, listening to a story told more than 30 years ago.” Isidore Okpewho writes a critique of the book (which I can’t immediately access since I don’t have a subscription to Research in African Literatures), to which Thomas Hale responds.

This book is #39 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.