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As those of you who followed this blog during my year of reading the world back in 2012 will remember, Africa is by far the most difficult continent to get published literature in English from. Not only is there a serious lack of translation (which meant that I often had to resort to unpublished manuscripts and even had to have something translated specially by a team of volunteers in one case), but in countries where English is widely spoken there are often very few publishers and weak networks for getting books out. The result is that very few stories written by African authors make it onto bookshop shelves in places like Britain and America.

Luckily, there are organisations working to change this. The African Books Collective (ABC) is one such – for more than 20 years, it has distributed African literature around the world and now represents 147 publishers from 25 nations in the continent. It came to my rescue several times during my quest and was the means by which I discovered Weaver Press, the Harare-based publisher behind Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare, which I read for Zimbabwe.

I very much enjoyed that book, so when the ABC’s Justin Cox told me about a new book from Weaver Press, Christopher Mlalazi’s They are Coming, I was keen to take a look.

Set in Lobengula Township in Bulawayo, northern Zimbabwe, the novel reveals the personal cost of the traumatic events in the nation’s recent past. It is told through the eyes of Ambition, a young boy whose family is thrown into disarray when his older sister, Senzeni, runs away from home to join the pro-Mugabe youth militia. Switching between 2004 and the time of the 1977 War of Independence, the narrative traces a series of old grudges and scores, revealing how violence begets violence on both a domestic and national level.

Mlalazi’s skill shines through in the little details. Every so often, his spare prose is illuminated by a glorious image, bringing the narrative alive and plunging us into the heart of the scenes he describes. There is the national flag streaming above the Green Bombers militia so that they look ‘as if they’re accompanied by a brightly coloured bird’, for example, and the group of people scattered by police tear gas ‘as if they’ve been flung hither and thither by a giant hand’.

This fine observational detail accompanies a host of strong female characters – a recurring trait in much of the African literature written by men that I have read. From the irrepressible prostitute MaVundla, who does not scruple to abuse and exact revenge on clients who do not pay, to the angry Senzeni herself, the narrative is thronged with women determined to assert themselves.

When set against the multitude of threats that render daily life perilous – including economic breakdown, political spies, guerrilla attacks and witchcraft (it is widely believed, for example, that new underwear can be used to cast a spell that will make a woman menstruate to death) – this intransigence is admirable. As Ambition’s mother observes, ‘this isn’t about politics, [...] it’s about survival.’

That’s not to say that this is a perfect book. The nuts and bolts of the narrative creak. Tenses slip, conversations meander, and the various revelations of the narrative tumble into view rather clumsily. Now and then, the stripped-back prose reads more like a synopsis than a rounded, fleshed out novel.

In addition, the question of who Mlalazi is writing for crops up a few times. Having been a fellow on the University of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program and a Guest Writer of the City of Hanover, among several other accolades, Mlalazi clearly has an eye on the international audience, meaning that he sometimes shoehorns in rather chilly exposition in an effort to keep us all up to speed. His writing works best when he treats as locals, trusting us to infer what we need to know. (The section where he gives us directions to Jiba village, for example, is great because it allows us to put off our foreignness and entertain the illusion that we are residents of Plumtree district.)

Despite these problems, however, this is a refreshing and brave book. It is an illuminating view from a section of world society that usually goes unheard. As an imaginative account of the trials and challenges facing ordinary people under Mugabe’s rule, it is valuable. Weaver Press must be applauded for continuing to put out such works in the face of many obstacles. Let’s hope there are lots more to come.

They are Coming by Christopher Mlalazi (Weaver Press, 2014)

 

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In the 16 months or so since I finished my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to hear how the project continues to generate interest and have unexpected consequences. From booklovers discovering stories they would never have otherwise found to other readers being inspired to take on similar quests, it’s great to know that my little adventure has encouraged people around the planet to engage with books in new ways.

So you can imagine my delight when, a little while ago, I received a message from film producer Genevieve Lemal. Having worked on such notable movies as Coco Before Chanel  and a forthcoming adaptation of Madame Bovary, as well as numerous French-language films, Lemal is always looking for stories that might work well on the big screen.

She’d heard about Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland when she read an article about my project in The Atlantic a few months ago, and decided to take a closer look at the book. Just as I did, she fell in love with the writer’s account of his teenage escape from the clutches of a python cult in rural Togo and amazing journey up through Africa and Europe to live with the Inuit in Greenland.

Lemal liked the story so much, in fact, that she thought it would make a good film and was in talks with Kpomassie’s French publisher to secure the rights. If all went well, she hoped to be able to invite me to the premiere a few years hence.

A month or so later she was back in touch: she’d been to Paris and met Kpomassie, who is now in his seventies and lives just outside the city. He was an astonishing character, she said, full of stories about his adventures – he even recounted an extraordinary conversation he’d had with his grandfather when he returned to Togo, in which he struggled to explain all that he had seen and done because his mother tongue, Mina, has no word for ‘snow’. I was very jealous as, as I mentioned in my post on his book, Kpomassie is the writer I would most like to meet in the world, so Lemal generously said that if I was coming to Paris I should let her know and perhaps we could all meet up.

A few messages further on and a deal has been struck and a scriptwriter engaged, and Lemal is looking forward to going scouting for locations in Greenland. As she warns me, it will be a long time before the film is ready for screening. Nevertheless, I can’t help being very excited. It’s brilliant to think that Kpomassie’s wonderful story has a chance to reach even more of the world. I look forward to shaking his hand on the red carpet when that day comes.

Picture showing Tété-Michel Kpomassie signing a copy of his book at a student event by Stundentersamfunnet Bergen.

South Sudan big

Those of you who have followed this project since the early days might remember Julia Duany. She is the South Sudanese author and senior civil servant who very kindly wrote and recorded the story that kicked off my year of reading the world on 1 January 2012.

If Julia hadn’t been so generous, I don’t know what I would have done about finding something to read from the world’s newest country. South Sudan had only come into being a handful of months before my literary quest began and was still feeling the impact of a long and bloody civil war that had devastated the region. The nascent nation had virtually no roads, no hospitals, no schools and certainly nothing in the way of a book publishing industry.

Julia’s story reflected this. She wrote with great feeling about her experience of returning to her homeland in 2005 after 20 years in the US to work to build her nation from the ground up. She was under no illusions about the challenges that lay ahead, but she was also full of hope and pride for her new nation.

Sadly, in the last month, fighting between the supporters of the South Sudanese president and those of his former deputy has brought great suffering to many in the region. With much of the country in chaos and thousands fleeing their homes to escape arrest or execution, it’s very hard to make contact with people there and find out what’s going on.

So when a producer of BBC Radio 4’s iPM programme contacted me to see if I could put her in touch with Julia to get an inside perspective on the situation I was determined to do my best to help. Luckily, it turned out that Julia had left South Sudan to spend Christmas with her family in the US shortly before the trouble erupted. Speaking from Washington, she recorded a powerful and moving account of her experiences and thoughts on the latest terrible events, which was broadcast last weekend (you can hear it here, although I suspect this won’t work outside the UK). As those of us in peaceful places wish each other Happy New Year and set out with high hopes for 2014, it’s sobering to think what Julia faces as she waits to return to the country she and her compatriots have worked so hard to establish.

One colleague of Julia’s is especially in my thoughts at the moment. Deng Gach Pal, the man who put me in touch with Julia and with whom I have kept in touch since I met him in the run up to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, has not answered my emails since the fighting broke out. I hope this is merely down to him being busy trying to cope with the extremely difficult circumstances in the capital, Juba, but I know that there is a chance that things are more serious than that. As you can see from an article I wrote about him for the New Internationalist, Deng is an extraordinary person full of enthusiasm and energy and has overcome challenges most of us could never imagine in his life. I can only hope that he is safe.

Picture of an ash-dressed Mundari child celebrating the first South Sudan Independence Day by Freedom House

Madagascar: over to you

December 21, 2012

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‘You should easily be able to find something from Madagascar,’ said a friend a few months ago. ‘It’s massive.’

Massive though the world’s fourth-largest island nation may be, its literature is not widely translated. In fact, there’s so little out there that, seeing the gap on my list, Sophie Lewis, Editor at Large at And Other Stories, offered to lend a hand. She sent me her translation of a short story, ‘Za’, by Francophone Malagasy writer Jean-Luc Raharimanana. The story on its own would not be enough – it had developed into a novel but this was not yet translated; however, she would contact Raharimanana to see what else he could suggest.

The next day Lewis was back with the news that not a single Malagasy novel had been translated into English. Given what I’ve found to be the case with several other Francophone and Lusophone African countries this year, this didn’t surprise me a great deal, but Sophie was shocked – so much so that she’s determined to do something about it and is keen to hear about Malagasy novels that might be suitable for And Other Stories to translate and publish (please put your suggestions at the bottom of this post).

In the meantime, however, there was only one book that fitted the bill for my purposes: Voices from Madagascar, edited by Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa.

Published in 2002, the anthology brings together prose and poetry from more than 15 writers, including Raharimanana, in an effort to address the lack of translated Malagasy literature (which its editors claim stems from the country’s political isolation during its Marxist era and the fact that none of its publishers distribute abroad). Presented in parallel with the original French texts, the works range from bleak, violent tales such as David Jaomanoro’s ‘Funeral of a Pig’, in which a son orchestrates a brutal attack on his mother, through to bombastic, witty pieces like Lila Ratsifandriamanana’s ‘God Will Come Down to Earth Tomorrow!’, in which the world anticipates a visit from the Almighty.

There is a great deal of anger in this book, particularly in the early stories. This comes through in hard-hitting, personal pieces such as Raharimanana’s ‘Case Closed’, which sees an abused woman forced to aid a trafficker by sewing drugs into her baby’s corpse, as well as sharp, satirical stories like ‘The President’s Mirror’, in which writer Bao Ralambo goes to town on the fickleness and narcissism of the title character. There are also more rounded, extended works like Jean-Claude Fota’s ‘Walk No Work’, which depicts brilliantly the mental disintegration of a bright graduate in the face of continual rejection and lack of opportunity, recalling such bildungsromans as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and MT Vasudevan Nair’s Kaalam.

In addition, the collection provides some fascinating glimpses of Malagasy customs and mores. The shocking tradition of insulting a corpse to honour it at a funeral, for example, crops up several times, while there is an almost magical sense of the clash between the old and the new in stories such as Narcisse Randriamirado’s ‘Grandmother’. We also witness the way that many customs are weighted against gender equality in ‘In the Top’ by Alice Ravoson, which sees a woman strive to put herself through university in the face of family expectations that she will remain tied to domestic life.

As is nearly always the case in an anthology like this, some pieces come across better than others. While there is a lovely, poetic quality to much of the prose writing – no doubt owing to the fact that many of the writers work in both forms – it sometimes tips over into opacity and vagueness. The unrelenting shock and violence of the early pieces may also put some readers off, which is a shame as the collection broadens out beautifully.

Overall, though, as a tasting platter of Malagasy literary talent, this is a flavourful and moreish offering. Reading it adds to the sense of how many great works we must be missing because of the lack of cultural exchange to date. It’s surely high time that changed, so go on, tell me: what Malagasy novels should we English-language types be reading?

Voices from Madagascar ed. Jacques Bourgeacq and Liliane Ramarosoa (Ohio University Press, 2002)

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Starting the countdown of the final 10 posts of the year is the story of one of the most extraordinary collaborative ventures I’ve ever had the privilege to witness: the translation of a book by a team of volunteers in Europe and the US specially for this project.

The idea to see if this was possible started back in September when I was beginning to despair of ever finding a novel, short story collection or memoir that I could read in English from the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. Like fellow Portuguese-speaking Guinea-Bissau, the country seemed to have no literature available in translation, no matter who I asked or how hard I searched – and in this case, there was no handy collection of speeches by a leading political activist to fall back on. As far as English-language readers were concerned, when it came to writing of any kind from Sao Tome and Principe, there was radio silence.

Finding me tearing my hair out at my desk one day, my fiancé Steve suggested that it might be time to try a different tack. ‘Why don’t you can see if you can get a group of people to translate something for you?’ he said.

I wasn’t convinced. No-one was going to want to give up their time to translate bits of a book so that some strange girl in a hat and scarf in London could read it, I thought. But Steve brushed my protests aside: ‘Just try it and see what happens,’ he said.

So, rather doubtfully, I posted something on Facebook, tweeted a call for Portuguese translators and sat back to wait. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait very long. Within half an hour or so, an old school friend who teaches languages got in touch to say she’d be happy to help. Then I heard from a blog visitor through the AYORTW Facebook page – she was prepared to take on a section too.

Meanwhile, the Twitterati were whirring into action, with loads of suggestions of people to speak to and new connections pinging my way. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was inundated with emails from people offering their time and talents – among them award-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa, who translated Luis Cardoso’s The Crossing, the book I read from East Timor. In fact, the response to the appeal was so overwhelming that, within a week, I had heard from more people than I could involve in the project.

Next came the challenge of choosing the book to be translated. This proved to be rather difficult: although there were works by Santomean authors out there, most were too long to divide up into manageable chunks and only available as expensive one-offs through rare booksellers. Given that I needed 10 copies, these simply weren’t practical.

At last, however, I stoogled upon the website of Portuguese publisher Chiado Editora. The company had works by a couple of writers with connections to Sao Tome and Principe on its books and one in particular fitted the bill: A casa do pastor by Olinda Beja. Running to around 140 pages, this slender book was available in multiple copies. So, with next to no information about it, I put my order in, shipped the books off to my team of volunteers and, a month later, was delighted to receive their translations back.

Set in the Beira Alta region of Portugal (where Beja, who was born in Sao Tome and Principe and now lives in Switzerland, grew up), the collection brings together stories told to the author by her grandmother and octogenarian shepherd João Grilo, as well as her own childhood recollections. Ranging from quirky anecdotes to ghost stories, with a good helping of social commentary and the odd rant thrown in along the way, the pieces present a rich and varied picture of a way of life that is fast disappearing.

The setting of the book in Portugal rather than Sao Tome and Principe raised interesting questions for me and the translators. In fact, several of them were surprised and even disappointed to find that the backdrop to the stories was a lot more familiar than they had expected it to be. One in particular, Ana Cristina Morais in the US, was amazed to find herself reading stories in the dialect of the region her father grew up in, having braced herself for unfamiliar language and references.

For me, this was thought-provoking. While setting has not been a big factor in many of the book choices I’ve made this year – after all British writers write about other places all the time so I don’t see why I should expect authors from other countries to stick to stories within their own borders – the claim that this collection was Santomean literature was complicated by Beja’s strong links with Portugal. It seemed telling that, after all that searching, the only book that I could find that was short enough and available in large enough quantities for this project was by someone who had left the country and was writing about another place (although from what I understand much of Beja’s poetry draws more directly on her African heritage).

While it might not be Santomean, however, the rural culture that Beja explores and records in the stories is nevertheless fascinating. From the flamboyant saints festivals attended by João in his heyday, to the rough justice meted out to sheep rustlers and the majesty of the landscape, the Beira Alta region emerges as a haunting and characterful place. Indeed, it’s arguable that her Santomean heritage gives Beja the distance to appreciate the beauty and harshness of life in the region where ‘a whole generation of shepherds was coming to an end, leaving the hills [...] silent, bare of sounds and footsteps, stories and murmurings’.

The setting also threw up some translation challenges, with several of the region-specific and plant-related terms requiring careful handling. In particular, Yema Ferreira, an Angolan writer living in Denmark, and I had an interesting correspondence about how she should handle the word ‘giesta’ in the story ‘Maria Giesta’. The translation of the word is ‘genista’ (a flowering shrub) and this provides scope for some wordplay in the piece. As she was translating the character’s surname, Ferreira wondered whether she should also translate her first name, turning Maria Giesta into Mary Genista. In the end we agreed it was best to compromise with Maria Genista, however the discussion provided a fascinating insight into the sort of decisions translators have to make line by line.

Voice was another talking point. As might be expected in a collection drawn from the reminiscences and stories of three people and translated by nine others, the tone and register of the book varies considerably. There are wistful pieces such as ‘The Sower of Stars’, in which a boy grows up wanting to work in the night sky, and magical tales like ‘The Witch from Vila Chã’, as well as rambling anecdotes about a con artist who paints sparrows yellow to sell as canaries and a farcical run in with a cow on a country road.

This variety might explain the translators’ mixed reactions to the book. While some responded warmly to the simplicity of the storytelling, finding parallels with the work of writers such as Miguel Torga and Altino do Tojal, others disliked Beja’s writing, describing the stories as ‘dull’ and in one case as being like ‘torture’ to read.

As someone privileged to enjoy the finished product and oblivious to the scaffolding holding it all together behind the scenes, I found the collection fascinating. While some of the pieces are undoubtedly less successful than others, there are moments of great charm and beauty. At her best, conjuring the wildness of the Beira Alta mountain ranges, Beja is mesmerizing.

The experience of watching the collection come together was also humbling and gave me a renewed respect for the work translators do. It made me realise how much we monoglots rely on the good faith, skill and judgement of people with the ability to bridge language gaps for us. Without them, we would live in a very narrow world.

The Shepherd’s House (A casa do pastor) by Olinda Beja, translated from the Portuguese by Yema Ferreira, Ana Fletcher, Tamsin Harrison, Margaret Jull Costa, Clare Keates, Ana Cristina Morais, Robin Patterson, Ana Silva and Sandra Tavares

As an adjunct to the post above, Olinda Beja tells me that she has a collection of short stories set in STP which was nominated for a big Portuguese language prize this year. It’s called “Histórias da Gravana” and was published in Brazil (so not easily available in other parts of the world). However, if you speak Portuguese and are in or planning a trip to Brazil it sounds like a good read!

Mauritania: language barriers

December 12, 2012

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If there were a hall of fame for hardest countries in the world to find literature from in English, Mauritania would be up there with the best of them. The short answer is that there are no commercially published translations of books penned by writers from the country in either Arabic, French, Hassaniya Arabic, Pulaar, Soninke or Wolof – the six most commonly spoken languages in the nation.

As Manuel Bengoéchéa of the Institut français de Mauritanie explained to me, this is partly because Mauritanian novels and other similar works don’t exist in great numbers in the first place. With so many linguistic communities in one place and a strong oral tradition, it is hard to justify putting resources into publishing works that will only be accessible to a fraction of the population. As a result, stories are more often spoken than written in the country.

Nevertheless, there are some published and celebrated Mauritanian novels out there – and several people went to great lengths to try to help me find one that I could read in English. Of these, International Prize for Arabic Fiction administrator Fleur Montanaro deserves a particular mention. Having lived in the country for seven years, she put a huge amount of energy into searching for a title – even scouring a book fair in the UAE for possible leads for getting a novella, L’amour impossible by leading writer Moussa Ould Ebnou, translated specially for the project.

And then, in one of those flukes of googling, where a brief portal seems to open up to the one page on the world’s more than 620 million websites that you need, I chanced upon an article about Mohamed Bouya Ould Bamba. While studying his PhD at Kent State University in the US, the Mauritanian Fulbright scholar has vowed to write, self-publish and make available for free download one novel each summer. His first book, Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language, came out in 2011. A quick search on the title took me to a download site. I clicked on the text and, just like that, Mauritania was solved.

Taking place over four days, Bamba’s novel unfolds a crisis in a nameless family in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. Having not been paid by his employer for many weeks, the father finds himself struggling to feed his pregnant wife and two daughters. His wife wants to solve the problem by appealing to her rich cousin, but the father has more extreme ideas and, as protests against political corruption flare in the streets, it looks as though the family unit may not survive this latest in a long line of setbacks.

As the title and bombastic prologue – written in the voice of the land of Mauritania – suggest, this is a book with big ambitions. With his anonymous, Everyman characters and lengthy dedication, Bamba seems to feel the need to speak for his entire nation – an understandable aim when you consider that this is in all likelihood the first book by a Mauritanian writer that English-language readers can access.

Coming after such grand beginnings, the domestic setting feels a little cramped at first. Bamba tries to show the link between national and personal events in the narrative, but there is still something of a disconnect, particularly when it comes to the title issue of ‘the curse of the language’ (the numerous people who have lost their native languages in the region), which features heavily in the prologue but barely gets a look in in the main text.

However, as the pages turn, the dramas in the lives of the characters grow to fill the space, providing many fascinating insights into daily life in the Mauritanian capital. While some elements, such as the delight of the male neighbours at the election of Obama over Bush, are disarmingly familiar, others are startlingly strange. For example, the custom of men being able to divorce their wives with a single word is extraordinary, while the wife’s belief that ‘freedoms were an American thing’ provides a fascinating insight into the differences in outlook that fill the novel. In addition, small details, such as the Turkish soap opera that threads through the narrative and the cousin’s daughter’s secret tryst with her boyfriend, bring Bamba’s spare prose to life.

The text contains the typos and slips common in self-published works. On top of this, while Bamba’s English is largely excellent, there are one or two linguistic tics and slight misuses of words that cloud the meaning. Pacing is also an issue: scenes move step by step, lacking the agility and dexterity found in the prose of more experienced writers.

Through it all, however, Bamba’s passion for his country and for telling the world about it shines through. The narrative may be threadbare at points, but its author’s ambition for change and a better life for many of the people in Nouakchott – where wealth and poverty have created a divide more impassable than any country boundary – is admirable. A rare insight into this most mysterious and overlooked of West African nations.

Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language by Mohamed Bouya Bamba (2011)

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It’s official (well, as official as these things can ever be): there are no novels, short story collections or memoirs by writers from Guinea-Bissau available in English translation. I know, because I checked. In fact, it wasn’t just me checking, but a whole army of people, working in, living in or studying the country – as well as several others with no particular connection to it – who kindly helped me with the search.

These included Professor Peter Aaby, director of the Bandim Health Project, who has lived and worked in the country for 35 years; Yema Ferreira, a bilingual Angolan writer and blogger, who spent ages sifting through Portuguese-language sites and other sources (she found a couple of titles that had been translated into French, but none that had made it into English); and a PhD student doing a doctorate on Guinea-Bissauan literature who I bumped into on Twitter and who assured me that there was nothing translated – although she might well consider translating something in future.

All the same, in amongst the barrage of queries that have flown back and forth from my computer bearing the words ‘Guinea-Bissau’ in recent months, one translated title kept cropping up: Unity and Struggle by Amilcar Cabral.

When I first heard about this collection of speeches and writings by the leader of the Guinea-Bissauan and Cape Verdean independence movements, I discounted it. I didn’t really see how an anthology of this type could be counted as a story and, besides, Cabral was assassinated some eight months before Guinea-Bissau declared its independence, making the book’s claim to be counted as a Guinea-Bissauan work problematic.

However, in this case circumstances made the decision for me. In the absence of any other available G-B literature in English, I decided I would have to give it a go and see what sort of story – if any – might emerge from the pages of this book.

Bringing together Cabral’s writings from a period of more than 25 years, right up to his death in 1973, the collection sets out the author’s vision for a free and vibrant Lusophone Africa. Including everything from funeral tributes to notable African leaders and rousing speeches to his countrymen and women, to addresses to the UN and circulars directed at different factions among the Portuguese colonialists, the anthology reveals the damage that occupation does to a country and sets out the, often radical, steps the writer believes will lead to liberation.

Cabral’s passion shines through on every page. A master of rhetoric, he speaks rousingly against the racist ideology that led to the subjection of his people – ‘this tradition of scorn for the African and of belief in the congenital incapacity of this “big child”‘ – as well as against the sexism and petty divisions that initially hampered his compatriots’ attempts to band together against their oppressors. He pulls no punches when it comes to the Portuguese either, whom he dismisses as coming from ‘a small country, the most backward in Europe’.

At times, his words take on a Messianic register, as when he enjoins his listeners to refrain from the distractions of getting married and having children until the struggle for independence is won. However, his belief in violence as being central to the restoration of his people’s sense of agency is perhaps more Old Testament than New, as his ‘Homage to Kwame Nkrumah’ demonstrates: ‘For us, freedom fighters, the finest flowers with which we can garland Kwame Nkrumah’s memory are the bullets, the shells, the missiles of every kind that we fire against the colonialist and racist forces in Africa’. In addition, some of Cabral’s observations on culture are questionable. While arguing strongly that art, literature and philosophy are central to a nation’s expression of its identity, he seems embarrassed by some aspects of African culture and occasionally seems to be apologising for the ‘staggering simplicity’ of his compatriot’s proverbs and traditions – perhaps demonstrating how entrenched the colonial mindset can be, even in those seeking to root it out.

Cabral’s passion for his work is only one side of the coin. Meticulously researched and reasoned, his arguments rest on a robust and largely watertight foundation. This sometimes takes the form of pages and pages of statistics about the economics, education systems and healthcare facilities of certain regions under Portuguese rule as compared with those of other countries. However there are also some memorable soundbites that leap out to shock and outrage the reader, such as his observation on the double standards operating in fellow Portuguese colony Angola:

‘The setting up of each European family costs Angola one million escudos. For an African peasant family to earn that much money, it would have to live for a thousand years and work every year without stopping.’

Inevitably, such weighty helpings of data mean that the book can be heavy-going. In fact, reading it through from beginning to end is in many ways perverse, as Cabral probably never envisaged these very immediate and time-specific addresses would be collected in such a way.

However, for those who persevere, a powerful picture emerges of a man who gave his life, in every sense, to a cause. His collection stands as a Bible for all subjected peoples around the world and a monument to the activist behind it, who never got to see the realisation of his dream. It is a sobering thought that, nearly 40 years after Guinea-Bissau gained its independence, the literature that its greatest champion regarded as key to its expression of national identity is not available to readers in much of the world. We still have a long way to go.

Unity and Struggle: speeches and writings of Amilcar by Amilcar Cabral, translated from the Portuguese by Michael Wolfers (Monthly Review Press, 1982)

Ethiopia: home rule

December 4, 2012

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There are several strong contenders out there for Ethiopia, but Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was one of the first to catch my eye. I wasn’t the only one to like the sound of the critically acclaimed debut novel – the day after I finished it, Bradley stopped by the blog to say he was reading and really enjoying it. Clearly the book was a popular choice.

Drawing on the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, which forced Mengiste’s family to flee Ethiopia, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze traces the fall out of national events in individual lives. The narrative focuses on the family of an eminent Addis Ababa doctor, Hailu, who is struggling to keep his terminally ill wife alive against her wishes and who fears that his youngest son Dawit may be the next wounded revolutionary brought into the hospital for him to treat. At the start of the novel, Hailu has cast-iron confidence in his sense of right and wrong, born of years of making life-and-death decisions; yet, as society unravels around him, the lines begin to blur and when a horrifically tortured girl is brought to him to be patched up, Hailu finds his old certainties crumbling.

Like A Long Way Gone (my Sierra Leonean choice) the novel contains some of the most extreme descriptions of physical violence going. From brief glimpses, such as the pregnant woman ‘pleading at the foot of a man with stones for eyes and a plunging bayoneted rifle in his hand’, to extended scenes, including the interrogation of the small boy Berhane, the book bristles with outraged testimonies to the cruelty of its era – many of which will stay with readers long after they turn the final page.

Mengiste’s writing is excellent throughout. Perhaps the best proof of this for a child of the 1980s like me is the way that she manages to bring home the famines that ravaged rural Ethiopia throughout much of the final decades of the 20th century – and flooded Western TV screens, almost normalising images of extreme hunger for an entire generation. Through the eye-witness accounts of Dawit’s friend, Mickey, Mengiste cuts through the complacency that time and familiarity breed to shame readers with the horror of what happened once again:

‘This is how a man tills his land: behind cattle that are tied to one end of a plow that he uses to dig and lift and turn the ground. He holds a stick in one hand and the end of the plow in the other. At the end of that stick is a rope that he uses to whip the animals when they tire from the hot sun and the lack of water and simple hunger. A man works like this every day, every month, year after year, behind his cattle, his hand attached to a plow that has dug its own imprints into his calloused palms. He speaks to no one but himself, he hears nothing but his own slavish grunts as he pushes his plow into dirt, willing a crop to grow from unforgiving ground, praying daily for more rain. But it didn’t rain in 1972 in the north, my friend, and the farmer had no crops. The rains did not come as they should, and when the rains failed, the crops failed, and when the crops failed, the farmer grew hungry, and when he grew hungry, his cattle also grew hungry, because a farmer will feed his cattle before himself. When the cattle began to die, the farmer gathered his family and tried to walk to the nearest village, the nearest aid shelter, the nearest anywhere where he could hold out his proud hand and beg for food. But everyplace he went was the same as what he had left. They are starving here in Wello, Dawit. They are starving in Tigre and Shoa. We have lived in the city and we have forgotten about these people.’

Mengiste stretches these observations over a finely crafted plot, like canvases on a frame. Drawing in each character, the story moves from conflict to conflict, ratcheting up the tension with every chapter. I found myself gripping the Kindle in fear on several occasions – particularly in the scene where the soldiers come to search Hailu’s house for Dawit.

This solid structure means that the book can take the weight of the many larger questions its author heaps upon it. We find ourselves engaged in religious debates about where the line between accepting God’s will and working to ameliorate your situation should be and political reflections on the conditions needed to effect a revolution. In addition, we witness the events that can turn friendship into hatred, and discover a range of unsettling facts about life in post-revolution Ethiopia – such as the bullet fee families had to pay to receive the body of anyone shot by the authorities.

This is the sort of book that has the power to seem to stop time while the hours fly past. Gripping and thought-provoking, it sweeps you along to the final pages with just the right mix of emotional engagement and historical context. I’ll be adding Mengiste to the post-world watch list – I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste (Vintage Digital, 2010)

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I’d been trying to find an English-language Sierra Leonean alternative to work by Aminatta Forna for some time. I didn’t have anything against reading Forna – by all accounts she’s a very good writer – but I couldn’t help feeling that the British-born author had had a great deal of coverage since her most recent novel, The Memory of Love, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award 2011, and was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011, the IMPAC Award 2012 and the Warwick Prize 2011. I was curious to know what other stories Sierra Leone had to offer.

For a long time, the answer seemed to be not much. I did stoogle upon the website of the intriguing-sounding Sierra Leonean Writers Series, but my attempts to contact the company and find out how I could buy its books came to nothing. Other than that, most of the books out there from the West African nation – which is still recovering from an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002 – seemed to be decades old.

Then RebeccaV stopped by the blog and left a comment to say she was also involved in a global armchair adventure, in which she was trying to read around the world in 80 books. As fellow literary globetrotters can often be a great source of recommendations, I clicked through to her blog to see what she’d read so far. And there, staring back at me, was the answer to my Sierra Leonean quest: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.

Telling the story of the years Beah spent evading capture by the rebels in the Sierra Leonean jungle and then serving as a child soldier in the army before finally being rescued and rehabilitated, the memoir takes us into the heart of the civil war. Through its frank depiction of the extreme brutality the author experienced and participated in, and the courage and compassion of those who helped him, it reveals the best and worst that humanity is capable of –and the steps by which any one of us might get there.

The violence depicted in the book is among the most shocking and severe I have ever read about. From the gruesome descriptions of the massacre sites Beah passed through in his years of wandering in the jungle after the war separated him from his family, to the mutilated messengers carrying the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) ultimatums to the villagers it planned to attack, the suffering unleashed by the annihilation of social structures in much of the country is gut-wrenching. In the midst of the madness, particular sequences stand out – such as the cruel chain of events that saw Beah arriving in the village where his parents were rumoured to be staying only minutes after the RUF had struck, killing everyone in sight.

What stops the narrative from tipping over into the wallowing, sensationalist trauma memoir this book could so easily have been is the quality of Beah’s writing. The book brims with descriptions that capture the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world through which he fled. We read how ‘the evening was waving its fingers, signaling night to approach’ and the boys ‘walked fast as if trying to stay in the daytime’, and how the Atlantic Ocean sounded like ‘the roar of big engines, the rolling of metal drums on a tar road, a thunder exploding, roll after roll’ to Beah and his companions when they encountered it for the first time.

In addition, the writer excels at capturing profound emotional shifts succinctly. When Beah heard the story of what the RUF did to his friend Saidu’s parents and sisters, for example, we read that his ‘teeth became sour’, while, on the day the army lieutenant recruited the boys to fight ‘it seemed as if the sky were going to break and fall on the earth’.

Beah’s acute sense of the weight and value of words enables him to go where many other authors might fear to tread. From the drug-fuelled army initiation process and his trembling first touch of a gun, through to his initial kill, and on to the point where ‘killing had become as easy as drinking water’ and even a psychological need, Beah takes us through his own dehumanisation. Having inhabited this with him, we are able to understand the reluctance of the child soldiers to be rescued and taken away from the only structure and purpose they knew. We can also appreciate the huge task facing the rehabilitation staff, many of whom expected to deal with traumatised children without realising that they would come in the form of armed and drugged killers bent on violence at all costs.

In light of this, Beah’s recovery, which we also witness step by painstaking step, and his account of his experiences are nothing short of remarkable. In fact, the memoir is one of the best things I’ve read. Utterly engrossing, it brought me close to tears several times, made me laugh, took me to places I could never otherwise imagine, and inspired me to marvel at the goodness, kindness and potential in the world. You can’t ask much more.

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (Fourth Estate, 2007)

Benin: knowing your place

November 27, 2012

While it’s hard to find books from some nations, other countries are simply hard to find full stop – at least on the internet. Search for Nigerien literature (ie literature from Niger) and often as not Google will ask you if you meant ‘Nigerian literature’. And when it comes to tracking down information about the West African nation of Benin, you might well find yourself reading about events in Benin City, Nigeria by mistake.

In fact, I very nearly ended up reading a whole book from Benin City in error. The memoir, I Remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant by Omo N’Oba Erediauwa, was listed on a bookseller’s website as being from Benin. Not having been able to find much other Beninois literature in English, I ordered it a few months ago and added it to the pile of books waiting in the corner of my living room.

It was only last week, when I picked the volume up with the intention of reading it and turned to the back to look at the blurb, that the penny dropped. Instead of perusing the biography of a senior Beninois politician, I was puzzled to find myself confronted with an account of Erediauwa’s education in Benin City and his experiences during the Nigerian Civil War. It took quite a bit of head-scratching to work out what had gone wrong.

This left me in a quandary. I could count the number of weeks left until the end of the year on my fingers and, given how little my preliminary searches had turned up, I was not at all confident that I would be able to find any kind of story from Benin that I could read in English before 2013.

A few hours of frantic googling ensued, during which I entertained all sorts of unlikely possibilities. I was on the point of investigating the cost of flights to Porto-Novo, when I stoogled across Harlem-based writer Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr. Born in Cotonou, Benin, Ismaili came to NYC as a teenager in the late 1950s with the hope of becoming Africa’s first opera singer, according to her profile on the Woyingi Blog. Instead, however, she took up psychology and began to write and has published several collections of poetry.

A number of articles I saw about Ismaili mentioned that she also writes short stories, although I couldn’t find any of her prose collections available to buy. So, with nothing to lose, I decided to contact her to see if she could help me out. Ismaili replied with the news that a collection of her short stories was in the process of being prepared for publication. The book was not ready yet, but she kindly agreed to send me the manuscript so that I could read it. Delighted and more than a little relieved, I downloaded the file onto my Kindle and got stuck in.

Set mostly in West Africa, Stories We Tell Each Other brings together a series of pieces about people coming up against injustice, discrimination and the limits that society puts on them because of their gender, race or age. There is the young girl set on going to university in the face of her male relatives’ scorn for the idea of educating women, the teenager who lives in fear of being forced to undergo female genital mutilation, and the boy who travels to join the People’s Liberation Army in South Africa.

Ismaili’s eye for detail makes these struggles real. The sadness and anger of ‘Into This House We Come’, for example – in which a woman attends the funeral of a friend infected with AIDS because of her husband’s promiscuity – live in the narrator’s memories of the dead woman’s laughter and her love of dancing. Similarly, the writer lays bare the pretensions of Khadiatou’s relatives in ‘Ici On Parle Francais’ with the simple revelation that her aunt changed her name from Salimatou to Sally ‘after having gone to London once’.

For all the problems facing the characters, the narratives convey a great deal of pride in West African culture. From depictions of personal rituals such as Khadiatou’s grandmother setting an extra place at the table for their stolen ancestress, through to explanations of the significance of particular insults and the traditions that mean an uncle can also be called a brother, Ismaili takes the role of a guide, interpreting unfamiliar concepts for readers so they too may inhabit the world of the book. Indeed, her evocation of domestic life in Benin is often so warm and inviting that it almost makes you homesick for a place you may never have been.

With this pride and love of place comes of strong sense of the importance of championing the independence and rights of Africans. This gives rise to some powerful, angry writing, as in ‘Coloured Beads and Glass Trees’, in which an exiled politician returns home in an attempt to avert a crisis and, among other things, discovers the grubby conditions attached to Western aid in the region. However, it can at times hi-jack the stories, particularly in the latter third of the book, causing the plots to buck and jerk under its weight. For example, ‘Tandi’, in which a lonely secretary gets swept up in the struggle against apartheid in Johannesburg, creaks a little in the effort to contain all that Ismaili wants to say. In addition, devices such as the radio reports that break into the text, begin to lose their effectiveness with repeated use.

Overall, though, there is a lot to like in this book. Ismaili is at her best when she is writing about the small details that bring meaning to people’s daily lives. In this, she has that rare gift of being able to take readers by the hand and introduce them to lives and concerns very different from their own. An extremely lucky find.

Stories We Tell Each Other by Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr (publication pending)

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