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African authors to watch?

The longlist for the annual  Etisalat Prize for Literature has just been announced – this is a prize for first time authors from Africa so if you don’t recognise any of the names on this list, don’t panic.

As always South African and Nigerian writers dominate – maybe that has something to do with the fact English is widely spoken in those countries making it easier to get published? I know I’ve found it hard to get translations of authors from some of the smaller countries.  Eligible authors must hold citizenship in an African nation though they can be resident anywhere in the world.

The longlisted titles are:

We have to wait until March next year to discover the winner. There could be some gems here – maybe one of these authors could be the next Chimamande Ngozi Adichie.

Weekend bookends -# 3

A weekly round up of miscellaneous literary news you may have missed.

Literary Prizes

Ahmed SaadawiAnother prize was announced this week, this time for a fictional work by an Arabic author. The International Prize for Arabic Literature went to  the Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi for his modern-day twist of the Frankenstein tale set in Baghdad. Saadawi said Shelley’s novel inspired him to use different narrative techniques as a way of expressing the conflict that besets his home country. 

Frankenstein in Baghdad features Hadi Al Attag, a Baghdad resident who trawls the city streets in search of dead victims from the country’s long-running conflict. He sews the flesh together to create a new body, a figure he calls “what’s its face.” His creation then goes on a mission to avenge the deaths of those people whose body parts gave it life.

If that plot summary has whetted your appetite, you’ll be glad to know that as part of his prize, Saadawi gets to see his novel translated into English. Timing of this is unclear though since the rights are still being negotiated.

You can read more in an interview with Saadawi for The National.

World Book Capital

The people of Nigeria were in celebratory mood last week as one of its principal cities, Port Harcourt, started its year as the UNESCO World Book Capital for 2014. 

I was perplexed when I first saw mention of World Book Capital. It was instantly evident what this could mean. A city with a higher than average number of bookshops? Or a significant centre for book publishing? Neither of my first ideas proved anywhere near the truth. Apparently World Book Capital is is an initiative launched in 1996 to recognise the efforts of cities who have active programs to promote books and reading.  

Cities around the world bid to become hosts for a year; their bids are evaluated on aspects such as levels of involvement from writers, publishers and booksellers, the range of activities planned and the steps taken to ensure freedom of expression for writers. Last year it was the turn of Bangkok in Thailand to host a year long program of events; next year it will move to Incheon in South Korea. Port Harcourt in Nigeria gets to be this year’s host after beating off competition from Moscow, Oxford and Lyon in France, becoming the first World Book Capital City in sub-Saharan Africa. The government of Port Harcourt is looking to the event to boost literacy in the state where building work is underway on seven new libraries . You can read more about their hopes in this report about the opening ceremony. 

Literature about Africa

The Telegraph newspaper in the UK recently published a list of what they claimed to be the 10 best novels set in Africa. There are very few surprises here.

Unsurprisingly Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun makes the cut as does Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. While it’s good to see indigenous authors on the list, and there are some authors I’m not familiar with that have piqued my interest I would question some of the choices like Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It’s a fun book and it does bring the colour of Botswana to life but I wouldn’t consider it to be great, and certainly doesn’t stack up against Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing or Alan Paton’s Cry My Beloved Country, neither of which made the list. Making a list like this is for sure not an easy task when you’re trying to represent a whole continent with all its diversity. But I do wonder if they went just a bit for the obvious? 

If any of you have read literature about Africa, what do you think of this list? Did they miss anyone out that you think should really be included?

Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

petalsbloodSome novels can make you laugh; some can make you cry.  Just occasionally they can make you angry.

There was little to laugh at in Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. This is a book designed to evoke quite a different set of reactions, a book it would be difficult to read and not feel frustrated, exasperated and even outraged.

This is a novel about disillusionment; about the loss of the ideal of independence and the destruction of hope; about betrayal and hypocrisy and about the triumph of corruption over humanity. So incendiary was this novel at the time of its publication in 1977 that its author was imprisoned without charges by a Kenyan government sensitive to criticism of its manner of ruling their newly-independent nation. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience.

Petals of Blood opens with the arrest and detention of four people from the village of Ilmorog. It’s a village geographically remote from the centre of government and remote from the minds of those who form that government.  Ilmorog

One night three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery in the village are murdered in an arson attack. Four suspects are quickly arrested and detained for questioning: Munira, the headmaster of the village’s small school; Karega his assistant teacher, Abdullah,  the crippled owner of the  local store and Wanja the beautiful, spirited barmaid/shop assistant. The four are linked to each other through friendship, to the fortunes of Ilmorog and the fortunes of Kenya itself.

Ngugi uses these four characters to unfold a human drama, telling the story in flashback to twelve years before the fire when Munira had arrived in Ilmorog to set up the school.  Through the individual stories of the quartet we discover their past disappointments and frustrations with post independent Kenya motivate them to push for change. When the rains fail, the crops wither and the villagers begin to die, they hatch a plan to lead the villagers on a long walk to Nairobi, to lobby their elected officials for help.

…it was they outside there who ought to dance to the needs of the people. Now it seemed that authority, power, everything, was outside Ilmorog… out there….in the big city. They must go and confront that which had been the cause of their empty granaries, that which had sapped their energies, and caused their weakness. Long ago when their cattle and goats were taken by hostile nations, the warriors went out, followed them and would not return until they had recovered their stolen wealth. Now Ilmorog’s own heart ad been stole. They would follow to recover it. It was a new kind of war… but war all the same.

The walk confronts them with an even harsher reality. Modern Kenya is dominated by corrupt businessmen and politicians who have quickly and conveniently forgotten the high ideals of the revolt they waged to expel the British. No-one in this new order, neither church or state, cares about the plight of  the people of a remote village.  Despised and patronised but with all appeals for help rejected, they return home dejected.

faminein kenyaThe exodus is an emotive set piece which symbolises the moral decline that Ngugi sees permeate the country. But in case we didn’t quite understand his point, he uses the second half of the novel to reinforce the message. The efforts of the villagers to draw attention to their community have unfortunate consequences which render them vulnerable to commercial opportunism, political expediency and religious hypocrisy.

By the end, the four friends feel a sense of betrayal by those in power. Yet despite the personal losses they suffer, they never lose their faith that one day, Kenya will fulfil its true destiny. This time it will be a country run by the people themselves.

Tomorrow it would be the workers and the peasants leading the struggle and seizing power to overturn the system of all its preying bloodthirsty gods and gnomic angels, bringing to an end  the reign of the few over the many and the era of drinking blood and feasting on human flesh. Then, only then,would the kingdom of man and woman really begin, joying and loving in creative labour.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o 2Political corruption, social injustice, the struggle for freedom are not not uncommon themes in African literature. But Petals of Blood is one of the most strongly narrated indictments of a regime that assumed power with a promise of ending the inequality of its colonial masters only to perpetuate the same oppressions and divisions. Little wonder those in power were too afraid to let this author continue unfettered in his critique.

The Verdict

A truly remarkable novel. Difficult at times to read unless you are familiar with the country’s history. But it’s passionate depiction of the corrupting influence of power blended with some wonderfully portrayed characters, make this a compelling book.

Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey: Review

WifeSometimes reviewers’  quotes on the cover of a book do an great injustice to the novel and to the author. On the back of my copy of  Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey, is a comment by The Booklist  which suggest Quartey’s novel will be relished by fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.

Admittedly Wife of the Gods and the Ladies Detective Agency are both in the crime fiction genre and both are set in Africa. But there the similarity ends.   Quartey’s novel is a much darker tale than anything you’d find in the pages of McCall Smith’s novel, reflecting the clash between the new Ghana and its age-old customs.

In Wife of the Gods we meet Inspector Darko Dawson, a detective who is a dedicated family man but something of a thorn in the side of his superiors.  When a young female medical student is found murdered in the village of Ketanu, Dawson is despatched to lead the investigation.  He’s reluctant to go, not just because it means leaving the wife he adores and his young son but because he has unhappy memories of his last visit – it was in this self same village more than 25 years ago that his mother disappeared without trace while visiting her sister.

Dawson’s cosmopolitan attitudes and stubborn independent personality clash with the superstitious beliefs of the local population in faith healing and a practice in which young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests. As he tries to penetrate the veil of secrecy in the village in the forest, Dawson also attempts to pick up the threads of his mother’s last days in Ketanu and to re-establish his links to the family members who still live in the village.

Adinkra symbolsThis is a highly readable book with some well developed, plausible characters and a strong sense of the setting.  The glossary of Ghanaian phrases at the back is particularly helpful in interpreting references to the Adinkra symbols that are used to decorate cloth (these are important clues in the novel) and explaining what Dawson eats during his sojourn in Ketanu.

Wives of the Gods was Quartey’s debut novel. He has since published two more featuring Detective Dawson while still practising medicine at his current home in California. He’s going onto my list as an author I want to keep a closer eye on.

Sunday Salon: Exploring the Congo

sundaysalonMost of this week has been devoted to my journey into world literature, choosing the authors and books I want to read for my Reading along the Equator and Reading along the Prime Meridian challenges.  I’ve now identified authors for three of the 21 countries (Colombia, the Congo and England) and shortlisted some authors for another five.  It’s proving difficult to track down novels in English for some of the countries though (or at least ones that are available at an affordable price).

I also made a start on reading some of these authors with a novel from the Republic of the Congo (confusingly there is a separate country called Democratic Republic of the Congo), chosen for my  Given the  region’s history of colonial subjugation, human rights issues and civil war , I expected that Congolese literature would be on the dark side, full of concerns about repression, identity and a the clash of modernity with tradition.

What I hadn’t expected was the quirky humour of Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass — a novel I found by chance in a library book sale.  Mabanckou is one of a small number of authors from the region who have gained international attention in recent years. While he’s a  controversial figure because of his belief that Africans need to take some degree of responsibility themselves for slavery, in Broken Glass he steers clear of geo-political issues and focuses instead on the lives of a colourful cast of characters

mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou

Broken Glass is the nickname of a narrator who is a regular customer at the Credit Gone Away bar, a seedy joint much frequented by men who believe they’ve been much wronged by their familes. Broken Glass is asked by the bar’s owner to begin documenting the history of his establishment and the stories of his customers. They’re all eager to oblige, seeing this as an opportunity to put the record straight and to achieve a degree of fame. So we meet ‘Pampers’ who was falsely accused of sexually molesting his daughter  (his name comes from the fact he has to wear nappies because of injuries sustained during repeated sexual attacks in prison) and ‘Printer’ who was once a designer suit-wearing manager but is now a penniless heavy drinker.

Their stores are told in a fast-pace, almost stream of consciousness style,with few full stops, paragraph breaks or capital letters. Far from being pretentious however, this style feels completely natural and real, as if we are on a bar stool with Broken Glass as he downs yet another glass of red wine.  Mabanckou has a wonderful flair for mockery –  early on in the book we’re introduced to a Prime Minister who is so jealous of a new catchphrase coined by his Minister for Agriculture that he orders his entire staff he find him one that’s even better and then plots his revenge:

the Prime Minister promised in the next reshuffle the Minister for Agriculture would be given the portfolio for Culture, all you had to do was cross out the first four letters of ‘agriculture.

I’m hoping the rest of the book lives up to the promise of the first 50 pages or so….

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