October 6, 2012
I learnt a valuable lesson during the hunt for this title: if you’re looking for suggestions of books to read, contacting national writers’ associations may not always be the wisest option. No sooner had Cherno Omar Barry, general secretary of the Writers’ Association of The Gambia, kindly sent my request out to the organisation’s members than my inbox was flooded with emails from writers advising me to read their books. One person even asked if I was in The Gambia at the time of writing as, if so, he would hand deliver me a manuscript to make sure I got it safely.
Excellent though I’m sure many of the suggestions were, the fact that they were being recommended by the authors themselves meant that I had no reliable way of choosing between them. In my experience, it’s rare that you find an author who doesn’t think you should read his or her book, and the enthusiasm with which writers advocate their creations is often no indicator of the quality of the work.
However, in amongst the flood of messages, there was one apparently impartial suggestion. It was from Joy, who recommended Folk Tales and Fables from The Gambia by Dembo Fanta Bojang and Sukai Mbye Bojang. I googled the book and, finding it was also championed by the African Books Collective – whose publications I have enjoyed consistently throughout this project – I decided to give volume one a go.
Written in response to a realisation that traditional fireside storytelling is dying out in The Gambia, the work brings together stories told by the authors’ grandmother and great-grandmother, as well as tales from friends and neighbours, in a lively anthology. Magic and myth jostle with creative explanations of rituals and natural phenomena to create a fascinating world, in which hares and hyenas can be brothers-in-law, cats go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and severed heads boss heroes about from the branches of trees.
There are some mind-bending events and images along the way. From the marvellous depiction of a herd of violin-playing goats descending on the field of the helpless landowner in ‘The obstinate farmer of Njaiyen’ to the drowned boys who are transformed into a pumpkin and served up by their unwitting mother in ‘The Hassan half brothers’, the stories are frequently surprising. Indeed, many of them are shocking in the cruel and unusual violence they portray – in ‘Lolly the Witch’, for example, we hear about how a cunning boy outwits a cannibal enchantress, who takes delight in tricking and devouring her daughters’ suitors, with a pile of human faeces and a bag of eyes. Similarly, the stories don’t hold back from outrageous, physical humour, with farting playing a pivotal role in several tales – Waahou is even knocked dead by another character’s legendary flatulence in ‘The three men of Tangana’.
The tales are so diverse, ranging from naturalistic human stories through to outlandish, magical fables, that it’s hard to generalise about them. However, if I had to pick a recurring theme it would be the idea that it is impossible to transcend your nature for ever. We see this in the first story, ‘Burr Njai takes another wife’, in which the donkey queen, having transformed herself into a woman to marry a human king, is at last forced to change back and rejoin the herd. The idea also drives the plot in ‘Samba Becomes Friends with Gaindeh Njiai’, in which a lion and a man realise it is impossible to maintain a childhood friendship, and ‘The Cow, Hyena, Lion and Hare Share a Home’, in which an attempt at a peaceful, cross-species community fails.
Interestingly for a work inspired by traditional local storytelling, this book is perhaps the most international and modern I’ve read to date in terms of the way it was put together. As Bojang and Bojang explain in their introduction, the final version was shaped by comments from fellow Creative Writing and New Media Google group members and readers on the peer-review writers’ site Authonomy.
For all the feedback, however, there are still one or two editorial choices that jar. The decision to include stock photographs of some of the animals mentioned in the stories is a strange one. In addition, although Bojang and Bojang have clearly made an effort to make the narratives read well, there are some abrupt endings, changes of direction and omissions that leave the reader foundering. The blunt, pragmatic language of the stories, while often adding to the humour, also sometimes misses the mark. Waahou’s fatal pondering as to whether Fusall has ‘any bad odour left in his anal system’, for example, raises a laugh for the wrong reasons.
All in all, though, this is an entertaining and illuminating collection. It is sad to think that many of these stories, which surely would be even richer in the hands of a skilled narrator around the fireside one Gambian night, are now rarely told.
Folk Tales and Fables from The Gambia (volume 1) by Dembo Fanta Bojang and Sukai Mbye Bojang (Educational Services, Gambia, 2011)
September 28, 2012
It was as if she’d read my mind. In fact, I’d just finished Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child and was preparing to post on it when her comment came in.
Shafiqah1 wasn’t the only Ben Jelloun fan to have visited the blog. Back when I first asked the world’s book lovers to tell me what I should be reading late last year, litlove also put in a vote for the writer.
However, what finally made me pick The Sand Child from the cluster of fascinating-sounding Moroccan titles on the list was a recommendation of a very different kind, from a person who doesn’t technically exist.
The Sand Child is the novel Doria, the gutsy teenage heroine of my French choice Just Like Tomorrow, is reading when we first stumble into her tough life on the Paradise Estate in a part of Paris the guidebooks never mention. As I liked Doria, I thought I would probably get on well with a book she enjoys. I also loved the idea of books talking to and about one another, signposting me from one to the next like clues on a massive literary treasure hunt.
And if I needed anything else to persuade me, Doria’s pithy précis of the book was more than enough to make me want to read it:
‘It’s about a little girl who got brought up as a boy because she was the eighth daughter in the family and her father wanted a son. Plus, at the time when it was set, you didn’t have ultrasound or contraception. No kids on sale or return, you get me.’
As Doria suggests, gender issues are at the heart of the novel. Like several other stories I’ve read from relatively conservative Islamic countries, the book is startling in its explicitness and the fearless way it tackles taboos. Focusing on the lonely and troubled Ahmed, who was raised to despise femaleness as a ‘natural infirmity’ that threatens the family’s future because women are forbidden by law to inherit more than a third of their father’s wealth, the narrative presents a complex picture of gender dysphoria that reveals the narrowness of society’s definitions. As Ahmed him/herself explains, ‘the huge ordeal through which I am passing has meaning only outside those petty, psychological schemata that claim to know and explain why a woman is a woman and a man a man’.
Even more engrossing, however, is the picking apart of storytelling that Ben Jelloun weaves through the text. Frequently interrupted by a tour guide-cum-storyteller and various listeners, characters and even literary figures from other tales, the narrative becomes a battleground of interpretations, speculation and suspicion. Just as Ahmed is both male and female, victim and aggressor, transgressor and conformist, so the story veers between truth and falsehood as a range of would-be narrators squabble over its meaning, providing alternative endings and even, at one stage, burning the original text. It is as though plurality and ambiguity are the only things of which we readers can be sure, a sentiment explored by the Blind Troubadour, who weighs in towards the end:
‘Besides, a book – at least that’s how I see it – is a labyrinth created on purpose to confuse men, with the intention of ruining them and bringing them back to the narrow limits of their ambitions.’
Such elusiveness might be maddening in the hands of another writer, but in Ben Jelloun’s it is intriguing, amusing and even beautiful. In fact certain images, such as the description of adopting another identity being like putting on ‘a wonderful magic jellaba, a cloak cut out of the sky and studded with stars’, reach out from the hubbub of the novel’s voices to stop you in your tracks, like rare treasures mixed in among the knick-knacks at a bustling bazaar.
The overall effect is rich, engrossing and challenging. Readers wanting a quiet meander along well-trodden paths are probably best advised to steer clear. But if you don’t mind being pushed, jostled, pulled in all directions, spun round and tumbled into the odd ditch, then this is the book for you.
The Sand Child (L’enfant du sable) by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (Quartet Books, 1988)
September 25, 2012
This book has been on the list since I started preparing for this project. First published in 1973, Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s The Fortunes of Wangrin won the 1974 Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noire and has long been hailed as one of the classics of Francophone African literature. Nearly 40 years later – as far as I can make out – it is still one of the few Malian prose works available in English translation (although I’d love to hear about others if you know of more books that should be added to the list).
The narrative purports to be an account of the life and times of teacher-turned-civil servant and all-round hustler Wangrin, as told to Bâ by the man himself shortly before his death. Working in Mali during the first half of the 20th century – when the country was under French rule – Wangrin quickly learns to play his peers and colonial employers off against one another for his own ends. Deft, resourceful and at times maddeningly slick, Wangrin rises to prominence and prosperity, until at last his ambition, enemies and the prophecy of ruin spoken on his birth conspire to bring him low once more.
Wangrin is an extraordinary creation. Presented as an almost mythic figure in the way his birth is portrayed and declaimed, this ‘profoundly strange human being with so great a mixture of good qualities and faults that, at a mere glance, it was impossible to describe him’, as Bâ writes in his Foreword, fascinates and bewilders his contemporaries and the reader alike. Whether he is undercutting the European millet trade, capitalising on the guilt of two brothers eager to give their relative a proper burial, outsmarting a corrupt official in the courtroom, or beating thugs in a fight, Wangrin is mesmerising. Indeed, his influence extends even to his author, who, whenever Wangrin’s antics teeter on the callous, is quick to leap to his protagonist’s defence, reminding us of his humanity to the poor and weak and the fact that in the Mali of the time ‘it was either destroy or perish, play tricks on others or be their helpless victim’.
The narrative’s colonial setting bears this assertion out. Ranging from wry jabs at the French administration, such as the list of ‘mannerisms that adorn French utterances’ and must be learnt by Malians if they are to converse with ‘white-Whites’, through to scathing portraits of cruelty and prejudice – among them the official who ‘would have been a blessing if he hadn’t had the unfortunate habit of cracking his whip across the backs of a couple of people and taking two or three others to jail who were guilty of the terrible crime of not having saluted their Commandant from twenty-five yards’ – Bâ’s criticism of the regime is unrelenting. Small wonder that in this compromised society, where educated Malians like Wangrin are recruited to spy on and cheat their peers for their European masters, canny citizens play the French at their own game and put their personal interests first.
Yet perhaps the biggest conflict of all lies not within the narrative itself, but on its margins. Sniping at each other across the body of the text are Bâ’s dogged insistence on the veracity of the account and the prevailing critical opinion that the work is largely fictional, embodied in my edition in Abiola Irele’s Introduction, which argues that ‘the essential consideration here must surely be not the exactitude of the recollection but the evocative power of the account’.
That would just about stand had Bâ not been needled into writing an impassioned Afterword in response to his book’s initial reception, in which he insists on the truth of what he has written:
‘Although the existence of the man who chose to call himself Wangrin is generally accepted as a historical fact, they [critics] think I “romanticized” his life somewhat and even added a subtle sprinkling of oral tradition and supernatural events of my own making in order to flesh out the story and give it a patina of symbolical significance.
‘I’ll repeat once more, then, for anyone who still might be in doubt, that I heard everything relating to the life of the hero [...] from Wangrin himself, in a Bambara often poetic, full of verve, humor, and vigor, to the soft musical accompaniment of his griot Dieli Maadi. To this very day I recall with emotion Wangrin’s voice against the background of a guitar.’
There may very well be more to this than meets the eye. If I had more knowledge of the context of the work and Bâ’s writing, I might discover that, far from the impassioned appeal it appears, this is yet another turn of the screw on the part of a witty author who is every bit as ingenious as the character he describes.
As it stands, though, for the reader coming to the text with no prior knowledge as I did, the clash between the Introduction and the Afterword is deeply uncomfortable. It was enough to make me refrain from using the word ‘novel’ when talking about the book. To do so felt as though I would be favouring an imposed and largely Western reading of the work at the expense of its author’s intentions. It left me troubled. But perhaps that’s precisely what Bâ set out to do.
The Fortunes of Wangrin (L’Etrange destin de Wangrin) by Amadou Hampâté Bâ, translated from the French by Aina Pavolini Taylor (Indiana University Press, 1999)
July 28, 2012
This book was recommended to me by Justin at the African Books Collective when I dropped by the their stall at the London Book Fair back in April. I’m glad he brought it to my attention as the subject matter and cover – which makes the book look a bit like a self-help manual – mean that I probably would never have chosen it on my own.
Written by Dr Mardia Stone, a Liberian obstetrician and gynaecologist living in the US, the book is an account of her homosexual half-brother Konkai’s diagnosis and struggle with AIDS in the late eighties and early nineties. Charting her sibling’s decline and death back in the days when very little was known about the killer disease, Stone confronts her and her family’s fears and prejudices, weaving in and challenging the attitudes to homosexuality that she and her relatives grew up with in Liberia and discovering a capacity for love that breaks down social barriers.
Stone’s unflinching honesty and direct style make the book. From reflections on death and mortality through to confessions of her and her other siblings’ tendency to laugh at their brother and sweep his sexuality ‘under the carpet’ in the years before his illness, the book is fearlessly frank as well as touching and tender. At times this can make for shocking reading, as when Stone writes about Konkai’s deliberate promiscuity without protection after his diagnosis when his anger and pain were at their peak.
Stone’s frankness also paves the way for some refreshingly open discussion of the approach to homosexuality in many African countries: ’You will sometimes hear African people say that Africans, for the most part, are not homosexuals because culturally or traditionally most Africans know nothing about homosexuality. [...] It is still taboo in many countries. Yet, I have seen a number of African homosexuals living “in” and “out of the closet” in Africa,’ she writes. Indeed, as Stone explains in her preface and again at the end of the book, a large part of her motivation for writing her brother’s story came from a sense that, because of this reticence, ‘Africans themselves are not writing their stories, everybody else is writing for them’.
In addition to its personal and cultural discussions, the book is also a valuable documentation of a key moment in the history of modern medicine. Having been a hospital doctor in New York during the eighties, Stone writes powerfully about the fear she and her colleagues felt when they first encountered patients with the newly discovered HIV/AIDS virus. Her account of her first exposure to a pregnant woman with the disease is particularly compelling:
‘The woman was immediately isolated. A stack of disposable gowns, masks, shoe covers, gloves and hats were placed in front of her room door. No one dared to enter without being properly suited. We looked like astronauts ready to enter a space shuttle every time we entered her room wearing our protective biohazard suits. Some of us even doubled [sic] gowned, double booted and wore triple hats and masks. We were that fearful. None of us wanted to go into her room alone so we always arranged to see her in pairs or as a group.
‘In the course of caring for our patient, I had to draw her blood. The very thought of this routine procedure was terrifying. [...] Terrified, I searched for a fellow resident to assist me, hold my hand and give me encouragement. No one agreed and no one was ‘available’. Even the nurses seemed to be on the snail track to Timbuktu, and because I had a heavy load of over twenty patients that day, I put on my brave face and with a brave heart entered the room alone, in my space suit.
‘”You people make me feel like a demon,” [the woman] said in response. “Why do you treat me this way? I may have AIDS, but I am a human being. I feel bad enough already and I am hurting because I may lose my baby. Is there no compassion left in any of you?”‘
Occasionally, the directness of the writing leads to assertions that some readers will find uncomfortable. In particular, the discussion of Konkai’s early abuse as a child by a young adult in Liberia and the role this may have played in the development of his identity and sexuality, while no doubt worth exploring, is muddy and at points seems to conflate homosexuality and paedophilia. However, as this seems at odds with Stone’s views elsewhere in the book, it’s possible that this is down to slightly awkward expression of these ideas rather than deliberate intention – it’s interesting to note the disclaimer at the beginning that states the work ‘is not a pronouncement on any debates about the nature of sexual orientation’. The closing sections of the book could also have done with some cutting.
All the same, this does not detract from the fact that this is a brave and often deeply moving book. Few would argue with Stone’s central discovery in the midst of Konkai’s cruel deterioration that ‘compassion is the key to our human experience’. A welcome voice from a part of the world where such subjects rarely get put into words.
Konkai: Living between two worlds by Mardia Stone (Cotton Tree Press, 2011)
June 29, 2012
This 2000 novel by Binwell Sinyangwe, another pick from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, promised something I hadn’t come across in any of the books I’ve read so far this year: a story centring on the hardships facing women in rural Africa written by a man.
Its premise is disarmingly simple. At the start, widow Nasula has less than three weeks to find the 100,000 kwacha she needs to pay for the next stage in her only daughter’s education, after more than a year of trying to get the money together. The rest of the narrative portrays the extreme lengths she goes to in an effort to raise the funds that are her daughter’s only hope of escaping a life of poverty.
In many ways, this is a profoundly feminist book. Dedicated to the memory of Sinyangwe’s wife Grace, the narrative reveals ‘the unfairness of the life of a woman’, returning again and again to Nasula’s desire for her daughter to be able to ‘carve a decent living that would make it possible for her not to depend on a man for her existence’. These hopes spring from Nasula’s memories of her own bitter experience of marriage and ill-treatment at the hands of her in-laws, recollections that bring out some of Sinyangwe’s best rhetoric:
‘Nasula had not forgotten. She would not forget. How could she? They had turned her into a servant, a slave in a chief’s palace. They had turned her into a stream in which to wash and kill the stink of their humanity. They had turned her into the hunter’s flat stone on which to sharpen their spears and axes. Into icisongole [a hard-shelled fruit] to play iciyenga [a game like jacks] with during the day, a fruit to be eaten at by the chief during the night. Into a source of laughter.’
Sinyangwe heightens our sense of Nasula’s plight with his repeated references to the common hardships facing many Zambians during the nineties. With the end of government grants, poor rains and the spread of HIV/AIDs, these are ‘the years of havelessness’ for rural and urban workers alike, in which many who previously prospered, and to whom Nasula turns for help, struggle to survive.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this material would be woven into a two-dimensional sob story. Instead, Sinyangwe rises to the challenge, imbuing his narrative with the vigour, vibrancy and ingenuity of his heroine. As we watch Nasula undertake the marathon walk to her in-laws, sleep in the city market to protect her possessions and challenge criminals and corrupt officials single-handedly, it’s impossible not to admire her.
If the narrative is occasionally a little overwritten, with a few too many adjectives fighting for space, the power of the plot more than makes up for it. So much so, in fact, that in the gripping final chapters, it’s easy to forget that what we are reading is not an account of some grand odyssey but the story of one woman’s attempt to secure a basic necessity for her child. It’s humbling to remember this as the narrative draws to its close – and more effective than any sob story could ever be.
A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe (Heinemann, 2000)
May 27, 2012
Just as one writer can become the go-to wordsmith for a particular nation in the eyes of the rest of the world (see my post on Afghan literature below), so one book can become so famous that we forget the author ever wrote anything else. In the case of Mongo Beti, I was all set to read The Poor Christ of Bomba, the 1956 novel banned in Cameroon for lampooning the religious and colonial authorities. Several people had recommended it and it seemed like an obvious choice.
But, as I was googling around Beti, I stumbled upon a description of his slightly later humorous book, Mission to Kala. Intrigued at the thought of reading my first African comic novel, I decided to give it a go.
Told by Medza, a self-confessed ‘professional failure’, the novel describes the summer he fails his baccalaureat and undertakes a trip to a remote village to escape his father’s wrath. Charged with bringing back his neighbour’s wife, who has absconded to the region, the young man sets out to recover his community’s honour. But he has not reckoned on the welcome his distant relatives have in store for him and, finding himself celebrated as a celebrity and erudite man of the world, he begins to gather the gumption he needs to face his terrifying father and make his own way in the world.
Beti’s instinct for comedy is up there with the best of them. From the bathetic chapter introductions, of which the penultimate one is my favourite – ‘in the course of which the reader will become convinced that the final climax of this story is at last in sight – a conviction which is, most unfortunately, mistaken’ – to hilarious set pieces such as the white-knuckle bus ride which anticipates The Italian Job when the vehicle ends up hanging over a precipice, the book is bursting with rib ticklers. Perhaps the funniest sequence of all is when Medza finds himself beseeched to impart his great insights into Western learning to the villagers and, having exhausted his paltry stock of knowledge fairly quickly, is forced to improvise.
The comedy is heightened by Peter Green’s 1958 translation, which often sees him reaching into the PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh lexicon and pulling out phrases such as ‘a really barbarous howler’ and ‘Oh the greedy beast!’ It would be interesting to see how a contemporary translator might render Beti’s words differently and whether this would alter the feel of the book at all.
As in his more famous novel, Beti has serious points to make. These focus largely on colonialism, religion and the questionable choices of parents, as one of the most powerful passages towards the end of the book demonstrates:
‘We were those children – it is not easy to forget – and it was our parents who forced this torment upon us. Why did they do it?
‘We were catechized, confirmed, herded to Communion like a gaggle of holy-minded ducklings, made to confess at Easter and on Trinity Sunday, to march in procession with banners on the Fourteenth of July; were militarized, shown off proudly to every national and international commission.
‘That was us remember?
‘Ragged, rowdy, boastful, nit-infested, cowardly, scab-ridden, scrounging little beasts, feet swollen with jiggers: that was us; a tiny squeaking species adrift in the modern age like poultry in mid-Atlantic. What god were we being sacrificed to, I wonder?’
Arresting though these passages are, they sit oddly with the jovial tone of the rest of the book. Reading them is a bit like watching a dinner party guest explode into a rant in the middle of a witty anecdote, leaving you unsure when it’s OK to start laughing again. Similarly, one or two of the set pieces Beti seeds in early in the novel fail to materialise, making Medza’s claims that he ‘can’t remember’ how certain things turned out feel like a bit of a fudge.
Overall, though, this novel was a great joy to read and had me laughing nearly all the way through. I’m already looking forward to getting acquainted with Beti’s other works when I’ve finished reading the world. And you can’t get a much better recommendation than that.
Mission to Kala by Mongo Beti, translated from the French by Peter Green (Mallory Publishing, 2008)
May 8, 2012
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gabon. It’s not a country that we in the UK hear much about. In fact, a quick search of the BBC website shows that only a handful of stories have mentioned the place in the last 12 months – and most of them were to do with the African football Cup of Nations.
With nothing to go on, it seemed to make sense to return to a trusted source for a steer on what to read. And so I picked out Daniel Mengara’s Mema from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, a collection which introduced me to the excellent Bessie Head a month or so ago.
I was in for a surprise. Told by a son in memory and praise of his ostracized mother, this is one of the most unusual books I’ve read.
The novel records the downfall of Mema (mother) as she runs up against the strict codes and mores of rural Gabonese society. Left to fend for herself in her in-laws’ village after her meek husband dies, the fearless and even fearsome woman, who has a habit of settling disputes with a machete, finds the whispers and suspicions that have dogged her throughout her marriage swell to fever pitch until she is separated from her children and must watch her son go off alone ‘into the new world that the white man was slowly creating for us’ because it is ‘the only way out’.
Mema’s world is a world of storytelling and rhetoric. When problems crop up, they are dealt with through a medzo or village meeting, during which the most persuasive speakers – usually the old women – carry the day. ‘Tales were what made people wise’ in this milieu of ‘psychological games and scare tactics’, the narrator explains, adding that ‘it was up to the youngsters to show cleverness by getting out of the tale the wisdom that they needed’.
The impact of growing up in a world where everyone is expected to be a literary critic and stories are the way of getting things done, is clear from the narrator’s doubts about what he is doing with his own act of telling:
‘Is it because I have travelled across the seas to the white man’s land that I have decided to desecrate my mother’s memories by telling them to strangers who will not even care to read her story to the end? Strangers who may not like what I have to say or may hate me for daring to say it? And how could strangers understand what I have to say? What will they do when the story of my mother proves too much for them and starts to haunt them, eating them from the inside?’
The novel’s portrayal of the power of women is equally intriguing. While making clear that the society he describes is ostensibly patriarchal, the narrator shows how women maintain control behind closed doors. ‘The lion had to be kept roaring for the sake of appearance’, he explains, but ‘when a woman was angry, nothing in the village worked’. The most striking demonstration of this is played out in the description of the rituals surrounding deserting wives in the region. Form dictates that the husband, who has usually been deserted on the grounds of cruelty, must go to apologise and beg his spouse back from his in-laws,. However if a husband is slow to do this the village women will launch a campaign of non-cooperation with their partners to force his hand.
For all the power women wield collectively, though, the radical Mema finds that individuals who don’t conform face a lonely road. Shunned for displaying masculine traits and daring to use mimbiri (witchcraft) to try to heal her dying husband, she is forced out of society and must carve out her own road for herself and her child.
In the wake of her death, only her son’s fierce admiration remains, fuelling this passionate elegy, which cannot fail to resonate with readers. Angry, abrupt, strange and moving, Mema’s tale is as haunting as its narrator describes. I was consumed and challenged by it. In its turn it will give me food for thought for a long time to come.
Mema by Daniel Mengara (Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2003)
April 16, 2012
If British writers had to translate their work into another language in order to get a publisher to consider it, I doubt many would make it into print. But that was the situation 25-year-old Rwandan author Barassa faced when she submitted the French manuscript of the first of her three novels to Real Africa Books. They responded that they didn’t publish books in languages other than English. Nothing daunted, as she and Swedish-born publisher Bjorn Lunden explained in an interview on Burundian blog Ikirundi, Barassa took just a week to convert the narrative into English so that Lunden could launch her work through his new firm.
All the same, despite Barassa’s efforts, the book is still not very easy for English-language readers to find. In fact if it weren’t for friend and fellow journalist Antonia Windsor picking it up in a Kigali bookshop while she was on assignment in Rwanda last year, I doubt I would ever have heard of Teta:a story of a young girl.
As the title suggests, the novel follows the fortunes of a young Rwandan woman, Teta. Prevented from marrying the man she loves by poverty, she becomes the envy of her friends when one of the region’s richest men, Boniface, asks her father for her hand. But the loveless marriage quickly becomes a hollow sham and, as genocide and AIDS sweep the country, Teta is forced to rely on her own resourcefulness to survive.
The book is at its best when it discusses fate or ‘the law of the stronger and the richer’ as it is more commonly described. At odds with the romantic Western perception of destiny, the driving forces in this novel are stripped back to their components: want, sickness and fear.
In a society where there are no welfare departments, insurance companies, emergency services or safety nets to soften the blows of chance, people are left with no option but enduring the hardships meted out to them. ‘Life itself had decided on my behalf, no one could change the decision,’ shrugs Teta when her father’s cattle die and it is left to her to save the family through her prospective suitor’s wealth.
As in several other African women’s novels I’ve read this year, the skewed power dynamics of relations between the sexes and traditional marriage form the subject of much of the book. Obliged to leave her family and forgo the rituals that give her a sense of identity, Teta finds herself helpless in the face of Boniface’s infidelity. And when the tension between the Hutus and the Tutsis flares up and neighbour turns against neighbour she finds the predatory attitudes of the men around her create an additional threat:
‘Faustin[...] was participating in preparations of the genocide. He was also one of the men that in vain had asked me to become his mistress. The last time I saw him he had told me that I would regret my decision. He might already then have known the power he would gain within some days.’
The language is rough round the edges, with several malapropisms creeping in. Now and then the narrative veers between registers like a van on a potholed road and there is a perfunctory feel to the scene-setting that sees minor characters created and killed off sometimes within the space of two full stops.
However, given the DIY job Barassa had to do on the translation, most of these bumps are hardly surprising. Every jolt is a reminder of the lengths the author was prepared to go to to tell her urgent, angry and touching stories in a country where few writers manage to publish their works even today. Surely reading them is the least we can do?
Teta: a story of a young girl by Barassa (Real Africa Books, 2010)
April 11, 2012
Mention the words ‘Botswana’ and ‘books’ in the same sentence these days (at least in the UK), and you’re almost certainly talking about Alexander McCall Smith. His No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has been a smash hit since it burst on to the scene in 1999.
Unfortunately, as I discovered with Mia Couto in Mozambique, the trouble with such run-away successes, no matter how well-deserved, is that they tend to eclipse all other work from or about a particular country in the UK literary market. Their authors become the go-to wordsmiths for writing about a particular place and we forget that there might be other quite different texts out there.
This is bad for contemporary writing as it makes publishers less keen to scout for works to bring into the UK, but it takes its toll on classic literature too. There are some literary giants that we simply don’t hear about. For me Botswanan novelist Bessie Head was such a one.
Partly autobiographical, Head’s 1974 novel A Question of Power, tells the story of a mixed-race South African woman, Elizabeth, who comes to Botswana with her young son to make a new life. Desperate to shake off the abuse she witnessed and suffered in her homeland, ‘a country where people were not people at all’, she looks forward to a simpler existence filled with community life and working the land. It’s not long, however, before Elizabeth’s demons catch up with her and she is forced to confront the fact that much of the misery and sickness she grew up with has taken up residence in her own mind.
The book is one of the most powerful and vivid depictions of mental illness going. Dramatised through two characters, Dan and Sello, who come to visit Elizabeth at night, the narrative takes us through the rugged country of psychological dysfunction, charting its crushing lows and dizzying highs.
Head finds an impressive range of tangible metaphors to capture both ‘the grandeur of this view of life’ and the ‘sensation of living right inside a stinking toilet’ that accompany psychosis. So we hear how ‘a wide corridor opened up in [Elizabeth's] mind’ and how at one point Sello appears to be ‘sitting at a switchboard plugging in the lines to all the beautiful people’, in addition to the visions of extreme violence and sexual cruelty that turn Elizabeth’s life into a waking nightmare.
Interspersed with these powerful periods of insanity are a series of interactions with the local community in which Head’s powers of observation and sense of the ridiculous combine to create a series of memorable cameo characters who all point to larger truths about the world. Chief among these is the ‘half-mad Camilla woman’, a Dutch volunteer at the community garden project Elizabeth joins who, in love with her own beneficence, is unable to look past her prejudices to meet people on their own terms. ‘Elizabeth’s nativeness form[s] the background to all her comments’ and when she comes to pronounce on Dutch literature, her true colours are revealed:
‘ “In our country culture has become so complex, this complexity is reflected in our literature. It takes a certain level of education to understand our novelists. The ordinary man cannot understand them…”
‘And she reeled off a list of authors, smilingly smug. It never occurred to her that those authors had ceased to be of any value whatsoever to their society.’
While excelling at tracing the steps by which psychotic episodes blow up and play out – the description of Elizabeth’s initial meltdown in the local radio shop, for example, is outstanding – Head makes a point of keeping the line between the real and the illusory blurred. This forces the reader to partake of Elizabeth’s bewilderment and share her conviction for much of the book than many of the things she sees are real.
This can give rise to flashes of frustration, but most readers will quickly come to trust Head’s obvious skill and give themselves over to her narrative. By the end, there can be no doubt of Head’s immense giftedness and her deserving of every bit as much recognition as other more widely read texts. An outstanding book.
A Question of Power by Bessie Head (Heinemann Publishers, 1974)
April 3, 2012
The chances of finding a Burundian book in English were looking slim. There were novels and non-fiction books out there, but they were all in French. None of them seemed to have made it through the translation net into the English-language market.
Having exhausted my googling powers, I decided to turn to the Burundian diaspora for help and fired off an email to the United Burundian-American Community Association in the hopes that its members might be able to point me in the direction of some literature that fitted the bill.
I got quite a few emails back. Several suggested analytical books by Western academics charting the causes and consequences of the civil war that ravaged Burundi for much of the mid-late twentieth century. Interesting though I’m sure these are, they weren’t quite what I was looking for. Others mentioned books in French – again, close but no cigar.
One person even asked me to help them finish a book they were writing about their own experiences in Burundi. As I have slightly less than two days to get through each book for this project, I thought this might be pushing it slightly and had to decline.
Then I had an email from Edouard. An old classmate of his from Burundi had published two novels in English. Her name was Marie-Thérèse Toyi. He hoped this helped.
It certainly did. After a bit more searching, I found contact details for Toyi, who is now based at Benson Idahosa University in Nigeria, and emailed her to ask how I might be able to get hold of one of her books as they were not commercially available online. She kindly offered to courier one to me. A few days later, I was holding a battered copy of her novel Weep Not, Refugee complete with a greeting from the author written inside the cover.
Following the fortunes of Wache Wacheke Watachoka, a Burundian boy growing up in a refugee camp because of the ethnic war between the Hutus and Tutsis in his homeland, the novel explores ‘the overpowering burden of forcing oneself to live in a foreign land where you are most undesirable’. As Wache grows up and has to confront the absurdity of the ‘nose complex’ (a widespread belief that the shape of the nose distinguishes Hutus from Tutsis) that has torn his country apart, the narrative reveals the cruel partiality that governs much of everyday life for the most vulnerable and exposes the injustices against which displaced people have to fight simply to stay alive.
The episodic narrative comes across with freshness and immediacy, at times reaching out of the pages of the book to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck:
‘Just for you to have an idea what it was like, take a cup of ground red pepper, pour it on your bleeding wound and you will have a little idea what it was like. If you have no wound, well, we cannot discuss again, because there are things which you will never be able to understand.’
This can be very compelling, particularly when it comes to reflections on the powerlessness of refugees in lands where their rights exist ‘only in the heart of the person [they are] dealing with’, the indignity of living on handouts, the injustice of imprisonment and the cruel arbitrariness of ethnic conflicts. The section where Wache at last returns to Burundi and, at the age of 26, enrols in school only to find that he has become an alien in his own land is particularly memorable.
At times, the declamatory style and the heaping of tragedy upon tragedy (while no doubt true to many people’s experiences) is hard to swallow. However, this may say more about me as a privileged Westerner than it does about the book.
All the same, I couldn’t help wishing that Toyi had trusted her story and characters to speak for themselves throughout rather than feeling the need to harness them to drive home her appeal to the reader to help improve the lot of displaced peoples at the end. This is the only part of the book that feels forced and it stands out because the experiences and reflections narrated in the rest of the novel are far more persuasive than the closing rhetoric.
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and valuable insight into a situation most of us cannot begin to imagine. It gives a voice to people whose stories we mostly hear second-hand from Western charity appeals and reporters. It was a great privilege to read it and it will stay with me for a long time. Many thanks to the UBACA, Edouard and Marie-Thérèse Toyi.
Weep Not, Refugee by Marie-Thérèse Toyi (Emhai Printing & Publishing Company, 2007)