Category Archives: African literature

Words Without Borders features African Women writing in Indigenous Languages

screenshot from the Words Without Borders October edition

screenshot from the Words Without Borders October edition

The October 2013 issue of translation journal Words Without Borders focuses on African Women writing in indigenous languages. The magazine has an impressive pedigree. Check out this statement from their “about” page, for example:

Every month we publish eight to twelve new works by international writers. We have published works by Nobel Prize laureates J.M.G. Le Clézio and Herta Müller and noted writers Mahmoud DarwishEtgar KeretPer PettersonFadhil Al-AzzawiW.G. Sebald, and Can Xue, as well as many new and rising international writers. To date we have published well over 1,600 pieces from 119 countries and 92 languages.

I am encouraged that they are drawing attention to the literature being written in African languages that often falls below the radar. Please check out their latest issue.  

I wrote a mini-review of the issue in my column this week, which you can read on the Weekly Trust site, the All Africa site, or copied below, with links and photos, on my blog.

Words Without Borders Draws Attention to African Women Writing in Indigenous Languages

BY CARMEN MCCAIN, 12 OCTOBER 2013

The online translation journal Words Without Borders, which has published English-language translations of creative work in 92 languages from 119 different countries since it started in 2003, has devoted its October 2013 issue to African women writing in indigenous languages.

The special issue, which also includes never-before-seen translations of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poetry, features fiction translated from Hausa, Luganda, Runyankole-Rukiga, Tigrinya, and a non-fiction essay which includes translations of Wolof songs. In an African literary landscape where English-language literature often dominates discussions, this is a refreshing and important contribution. Because the journal is online and free, it is accessible to anyone in the world to read, and several of the stories have a bilingual version, where you can read the original and the English translation side by side. (See the English translation of “Baking the National Cake” side by side with the Runyankole-Rukiga original and the English translation  “My New Home” side by side with the Luganda original).

Rahma Abdul Majid (courtesy of Ibrahim Sheme’s blog Bahaushe Mai Ban Haushi)

Closest to home is Ibrahim Malumfashi’s translation of the first chapter of Nigerian author Rahma Abdul Majid’s massive Hausa novel Mace Mutum. This timely English translation comes close on the heels of the “child marriage” debate in Nigeria. [I've previously reviewed Balaraba Ramat Yakubu's novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila, which also deals with the theme of young marriage.] In the opening of the novel, which is set in a rural village, an eight year old girl Godiya narrates, “My father, a farmer, has three wives. The only difference between our compound and others is that our household is not a kid factory; my father has only three children, while most of his compatriots boast a complete Barcelona team against Real Madrid, excluding the reserve.” Godiya tells her sister Lami’s story in this opening chapter, a girl who at fourteen is considered by gossips to be “old goods” until her father bestows her on a “haggard old” itinerant Qur’anic teacher. By the end of the chapter Godiya is nine and has seen girls die in childbirth and aunties divorced for being late with the cooking. What will she do

Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, December 2012, Kaduna. (c) Carmen McCain

Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi, December 2012, Kaduna. (c) Carmen McCain

when she hears her parents talking about marrying her off as well? While I do not have the original Hausa novel on hand to compare it with the translation, Professor Malumfashi successfully carries the story over into English. I wonder whether the vocabulary used by the young characters is not sometimes too sophisticated for their age and level of education? Fourteen year old Lami, for example, in one of her soliloquies about the suffering of women, complains about the “Herculean task of taking care of another man’s household.” However, on the whole, the angry tone of the narrative reminds me of the novels of Egyptian novelist Nawal El Saadawi, whose Arabic novels available in English translation harshly chronicle the abuse, disrespect, and violence against women in Egyptian society. I’m so glad Professor Malumfashi has made Rahma Abdul Majid’s work available to English speakers.

Glaydah Namukasa (Photo Credit: Winston Barclay, Flickr, used by permission)

Ugandan author Glaydah Namukasa’s story “My New Home” translated from Luganda by Merit Ronald Kabugo is similarly narrated by an impoverished child, the young boy Musika. He begins his narrative: “I started drinking alcohol the day I fell into Maama’s womb. Maama died of alcohol. She started drinking young and died young. She drank too much alcohol until she could no longer drink; and then the alcohol in her body started drinking her up until she dried up dead.” Alcohol drives the conflict in the story. Musika hates his grandmother and adores his grandfather. His unreliable childish descriptions paint a portrait of a woman, Jjaja Mukyala, who is afraid her grandson will merely follow the footsteps of the other drunks in the family. Musika describes how Jjaja Mukyala resents him because she thinks he reflects badly on her dead son, who conceived him with a bar maid while drunk. She also hates Musika to accompany his grandfather Mukulu to bars. But Musika loves how tender Mukulu is when he is drunk. “Mukulu was drunk when he told me that he loved

Dr. Merit Ronald Kabugo (courtesy of Words Without Borders)

me, drunk when he told me that Maama loved me, that Maama’s friends Aunty Lito, Aunty Karo, and Aunty Naki, who took turns taking care of me after Maama died, all loved me. Every time he is drunk he tells me he is glad he has a grandson.” Musika ends up wondering “How can alcohol be so bad and so good? Every day Jjaja Mukyala shouts, ‘If there is anything that will kill you it will be alcohol.’ But Mukulu says that if there is anything that keeps him alive, it is alcohol. How can alcohol be so bad as to kill Maama, and yet so good as to keep Mukulu alive?” “My New Home” is beautifully written and beautifully translated. I’d love to read more translations of Namukasa’s work.

I found Eritrean author Haregu Keleta‘s story “The Girl who Carried a Gun,” translated from Tigrinya by Charles Cantalupo and Rahel Asgedom Zere, the most haunting of the fiction published here. As in Mace Mutum, the narrator’s family is trying to force her into a marriage with a man she does not love. She runs off to Ethiopia to join the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, hoping to meet up again with her childhood sweetheart. In the meantime, she becomes a strong and fearless fighter. “… a few months of military training made my soft

Charles Cantalupo (courtesy Penn State)

body hard. I had muscles. My skin grew darker. I could run up and down the mountains. I sprinted over the sand. The oppression of Eritrea and especially of its women changed me into a fighter–far from a girl who was afraid to go outside.” Yet while the freedom fighters talk “about the oppression of women,” the actions of the men she fights with are not always consistent with their ideology, and she faces betrayal and disappointment. Despite her sacrifice to “liberate” her country, her family sees her only in terms of her body, caring only about whether she is married or has had a child. Keleta, who herself is a former member of the independence struggle in Eritrea, ironically invokes the double bind women find themselves in.

Hilda Twongyeirwe (courtesy of UGPulse Literature)

The final story “Baking the National Cake” by Ugandan author Hilda Twongyeirwe, translated from Runyankole-Rukiga by Juliet Kushaba, is quite different from the others in its opulent political setting and third person narration. The story describes the inner struggle of David, the Minister for the Presidency in a fictional African nation who “covers the tracks” of the hedonistic president and vice president: “They leave for two-day conferences and stay away for weeks. It

Juliet Kushaba (courtesy Transcultural Writing)

is David that ensures that the accounts are balanced to include the nonofficial days.” Although he is tired of their shenanigans he finds himself caught ever more tightly in the political web of the despised Vice President. The story was written originally in Runyankole-Rukiga, but the politics of it feel familiar.

Marame Gueye (courtesy East Carolina University)

The last “African” piece is a nonfiction essay in English, “Breaking the Taboo of Sex in Songs: the Laabaan Ceremony” by Marame Gueye that analyzes the sexual language in Wolof songs sung by women during the Laaban ceremony that is a part of Wolof weddings.

The journal importantly showcases writing in African languages often neglected in wider discussions of African literature. Ironically, however, in seeking out these stories, it also demonstrates another problem. Although there are thousands of works in Hausa, as well as literary communities working in Amharic, Arabic, Swahili, Shona, Yoruba and other African languages, Words Without Borders seems to have had trouble finding translations it could publish for this issue, despite a call for submissions put out months in advance. While most of its issues feature eight to twelve pieces that speak to its theme, only four translated works from African languages and one nonfiction essay written mostly in English were published here. It seems to me that this highlights the striking need for literary translators from and into African languages.

I hope several things come out of this issue: 1) An awareness on the part of those who talk about African literature that African literature goes much deeper than literature written in English or French (or even Portuguese); 2) An awareness on the level of writers who write in English but who are fluent in African languages that translation is an important contribution to African letters and that there are well-respected venues for publishing translations; 3) An awareness on the part of writers writing in indigenous languages that while the primary audience may be the most important, as it should be, that there are wider global audiences that could benefit from reading such work; 4) An awareness on the part of institutions that financial and infrastructural support for publication and translation would be a great boon to African literature. Overall, we need to see more interaction between writers in African languages and European languages and more support on the continent for both African language literature and translations.

Kofi Awoonor, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and the struggle for the New Dawn

(courtesy of the Story Moja Hay Festival site http://storymojahayfestival.com/)

When I heard on Sunday morning, 22 September 2013 that the great Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor had been killed in the Westgate Mall attacks, I began to obsessively follow google news and twitter with updates about the attacks. As I later related in my column for the next Saturday, I guiltily remembered after sitting online all day that even more people had been killed in Benisheik, Borno, than had been killed in the more widely covered siege on the Nairobi mall. It was a gut-wrenching week all round, with terrorist attacks that killed over 70 mourners at two funerals in Baghdad, Iraq; around 160 travellers on the road in Benisheik, Nigeria; at least 72 people at the mall in Nairobi, Kenya; and around 85 worshippers at All Saints church in Peshawar, Pakistan.

As I obsessively followed the news in preparation for my column published the following Saturday, I came across a New York Daily News article (yes, I know it’s a tabloid) that had a screen capture of the HMS Press Office twitter account, ostensibly run by Al Shabab. This was one of the several accounts Twitter shut down during the siege on the Westgate Mall. I had followed the chilling live tweeting from one of the HMS accounts during the massacre. Unlike Boko Haram’s Youtube videos released in Hausa, the tweeting was all in English of a sort that makes believable the speculations that there were Americans and Britons involved. As I read down the list, I gasped at the tweet at the bottom of the image, right before the screen capture cut off. It read “A new era is on the horizon. A new dawn, illuminating towards #Khifaafa. It’s a paradigm shift #Westgate”

Al Shabab tweet--a new dawn--cropped

The use of the metaphor “a new dawn” shook me because I had just spent days reading through the tributes to Kofi Awoonor, his poetry, and the poem widely used as his self-written elegy, from his new collection Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems to be published in 2014.  

It is named “Across the New Dawn.”

It is easy to read the poem as prophetic now.

 We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

There are warring notions here of what this “new dawn” is. Al Shabab presents it as a new era when its brand of extremism will take over the world–a paradigm shift. And if the four attacks across Africa and Asia are any indication, it does seem as though violent terrorists are pushing through a new order based on hate and sadism. It is, as it is meant to be, terrifying. This past week following the horrific attack that killed what the Vanguard claims killed up to 78 students in a hostel in at the Gujba College of Agriculture in Yobe State, I wanted to vomit when I heard of it. My mind couldn’t focus. As I wrote this week, I sat physically at my computer all day long unable to write anything.

What kind of person kills students in their beds? What kind of person joins a death cult? What kind of person slaughters the children of the poor?  In the dark? While they are sleeping?

Why?

I fear triteness.

What trite words of comfort can one offer when 78 students have been killed in their beds? When terrorists have murdered sleep in the northwest for over three years?

Yet, the convergence of these two warring notions of what the “new dawn” entails must mean something. I think (I hope, I pray) that Awoonor’s dawn will light the sky after the sun has set on Al Shabab and Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, and other terrorists who would attack innocent people to prove their ideology. Awoonor spent his life writing dirges, recognizing the evil that there is, yet he also he recognizes like Martin Luther King that the “arc of the universe bends towards justice.” There is a wisdom in his poetry built on generations of Ewe oral song that all the hatred of terror cannot twist. He writes of death, as a kind of balance,

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn.

It’s the archtypal life cycle of mourning and joy, death and birth, night and morning that runs throughout the Bible, which itself builds on and collects an oral tradition. As the King James version translates David’s song in Psalm 30:5

weeping may endure for a night,

but joy comes in the morning.

It makes me remember how I grappled with with writing about Easter in the dark days earlier this year. In my column the day before Palm Sunday, I wrote: 

But this week, it seems only appropriate to mourn, once again, so many senseless deaths, so much needless violence, to cry out as the Biblical character Job did, “Where then is my hope? […]I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer,” (17:15, 30:20) to cry out like Jesus did on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
There has been so much tragedy over the past year that I think most of us have become numb. We step over the bodies and keep going. But every once in a while something touches you, the death of someone you know, the news of children targeted and attacked. In these times, the evil of this world envelops you in its horror, and you just want to lie down and let the tears empty you.

It is in this time that I look for scriptures that remind me how humans survive. The beauty of the Bible for me is that it is a document that spans a history of thousands of years, and encompasses dozens of genres. The books within record the sufferings of humans throughout time. The fall into despair in the darkness of night and the release into joy in the light of the morning is an archetype found over and over again in the Bible. It’s ok to cry, it’s ok to groan, we have been doing it for millennia.
The biblical book of Job is written in the form much like a play that tells the story of a good man who loses his wealth, his ten children, even his own health. Finally, he is plagued by “comforters” who insist all of his suffering must be his own fault. As he questions God, he begins to see human life in the context of eternity.

“There are those who rebel against the light, who do not know its ways or stay in its paths. When daylight is gone, the murderer rises up and kills the poor and needy; in the night he steals forth like a thief. […] For all of them, deep darkness is their morning; they make friends with the terrors of darkness.”
Yet such evil men “are foam on the surface of the water; […]The womb forgets them, the worm feasts on them; evil men are no longer remembered but are broken like a tree. They prey on the barren and childless woman, and to the widow show no kindness. But God drags away the mighty by his power; though they become established, they have no assurance of life. He may let them rest in a feeling of security, but his eyes are on their ways. For a little while they are exalted, and then they are gone; they are brought low and gathered up like all the others; they are cut off like heads of grain” (24:13-24)

Job comes to trust that, in time, God will “redeem” his suffering, even when he does not understand: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.” (19:25-27). While he cannot control what happens to him, he acknowledges that “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.’” (28: 12-28)

The lessons Job learns are repeated throughout the Bible. King Solomon writes “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death” (Ecclesiastes 8:7-8) He laments “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless,” yet like Job he concludes “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (11:8, 13-14).

[...]

The prophet Jeremiah writes “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him” (Lamentations 3:19-24)  King David writes: “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Christians believe that the cycle of death and resurrection found throughout the Bible was embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In that moment nearly two thousand years ago, the entire universe was “surprised by joy” as C.S. Lewis puts it: overcoming death with life, conquering night with day. It is this hope then that I remember when the days are their darkest. The morning will come. We do not know when, but we wait, pray, hope.

This is not the false dawn of evil men, but a dawn of truth, mercy, justice. And above all love. For

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear… (I John 4:18)

And

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr, from “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love

To read the complete version of my three columns I refer to, see

“Weeping at Night, Waiting for Light” March 23 2013

“Where the worm eats, a grain grows: Kofi Awoonor, Benisheik, Baghdad, Nairobi, and Peshawar” 28 September 2013

“Murdered Sleep” 5 October 2013

Let me end with Kofi Awoonor’s poems, one from early in his career “The Journey Beyond” and the other one of his final poems “Across a New Dawn,”  both of which refer to the boatman Kutsiami of Ewe myth, who paddles the dead to the other side of the river. As I wrote after I heard of Awoonor’s death:

Terrorists thought they killed him. They didn’t know they were just bringing the boatman to ferry him home.

The Poetry Foundation Ghana makes his early poem “The Journey Beyond” available.

The Journey Beyond

The bowling cry through door posts
carrying boiling pots
ready for the feasters.

Kutsiami the benevolent boatman;
When I come to the river shore
please ferry me across
I do not have on my cloth-end
the price of your stewardship.

The Wall Street Journal published one of his final poems “Across a New Dawn” as a tribute after he was killed: 

ACROSS A NEW DAWN

Sometimes, we read the

lines in the green leaf

run our fingers over the

smooth of the precious wood

from our ancient trees;

Sometimes, even the sunset

puzzles, as we look

for the lines that propel the clouds,

the colour scheme

with the multiple designs

that the first artist put together

There is dancing in the streets again

the laughter of children rings

through the house

On the seaside, the ruins recent

from the latest storms

remind of ancestral wealth

pillaged purloined pawned

by an unthinking grandfather

who lived the life of a lord

and drove coming generations to

despair and ruin

*

But who says our time is up

that the box maker and the digger

are in conference

or that the preachers have aired their robes

and the choir and the drummers

are in rehearsal?

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn

*

We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

Someone said an ailing fish

swam up our lagoon

seeking a place to lay its load

in consonance with the Original Plan

Master, if you can be the oarsman

for our boat

please do it, do it.

I asked you before

once upon a shore

at home, where the

seafront has narrowed

to the brief space of childhood

We welcome the travelers

come home on the new boat

fresh from the upright tree

From “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” selected by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Fund, 2014

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?, which questions child marriage, is the September book of the Month at Cassava Republic Press

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, December 2012 (c) Carmen McCain

Last month, Abuja-based Cassava Republic Press contacted me and asked if I would contribute a “book of the month” for their monthly book series. I am currently working on a dissertation chapter on three of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novels: Wa Zai Auri Jahila?, Wane Kare ne ba Bare ba?, and Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne (translated by Aliyu Kamal as Sin is a Puppy… ). So, I identified the “Book of the Month” as Wa Zai Auri Jahila? (Who will marry an illiterate woman?), Hajiya Balaraba’s novel about the irrepressible Abu who is forced into marriage at 13 but refuses to let her early trauma at the hands of her 52-year-old husband define her life. I sneaked in a brief summary of the other novels as well. You can read the post here on the Cassava Republic Press blog.

“Wa Zai Auri Jahila?” Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel on child marriage, reviewed by Carmen McCain

The novel was published in two parts. This is the second part, of 164 pages.

The novel was published in two parts. This is the second part, of 164 pages.

In July, I also wrote a longer review of Wa Zai Auri Jahila? in my column, which I will copy below. The scholars Abdalla Uba Adamu [see here and here], Novian Whitsitt [see here and here], and Graham Furniss [briefly, see here] have also written about the novel:

The question of child marriage and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 27 July 2013 06:00
Written by Carmen McCain

Last week, after I asked “Where are the translations?”, I was delighted to hear from two professors working on Hausa-English translation projects: Professor Yusuf Adamu and Professor Ibrahim Malumfashi.

I continued to think about the issue of making Hausa literature available to a wider audience this week as I read Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s two part Hausa novel Wa Zai Auri Jahila?/ Who will marry an Ignorant Woman?, first published in 1990. The novel is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about child marriage in Nigeria, and it made me think that if I were to translate a novel, I would love to translate this one. For those who read Hausa, the novel is currently no longer in the market, but Hajiya Balaraba tells me she soon plans to release a new edition in one volume of around 400 pages.

part 1 of the novel, 182 pages.

part 1 of the novel, 182 pages.

The novel, set mostly between the village of Gamaji and the city of Kano, with brief detours to London, Kaduna, and Lagos, tells the story of the headstrong, bookish girl Zainab, nicknamed Abu by her family. In the first part of the novel, Abu’s dreams are threatened by the pride and thoughtlessness of men. When she is thirteen, Abu’s father, Malam Garba, swayed by other villagers who think Abu is too old to be outside the house, pulls her out of school. Amadu, her cousin who had promised from childhood to marry her, forgets his proclamations of love when he leaves the village and goes to Kano to start university. Starting an affair with an older and more educated woman, he refuses to marry Abu—telling her he cannot marry an uneducated woman. Malam Garba, humiliated by Amadu’s rejection of his daughter on the eve of their marriage, insists that Abu must marry anyway and gives her to the first suitor to come along, Sarkin Noma. Her marriage is more about his pride than her well-being. Ignoring her tears, he maintains she will be happy once she is in her husband’s house. It is not until after the marriage that Malam Garba regrets the ridiculous husband to whom he has given his thirteen year old daughter: a fifty-two year man, with a big stomach and red eyes, whose own eldest daughter is four years older than Abu. Sarkin Noma’s insistence on marriage to Abu comes initially out of his own need to reinstate control over his three quarrelsome wives and later out of his desire to subdue the stubborn Abu, who expresses her disgust for him every time he comes courting. His pursuit becomes a horrifying exercise in asserting his power. He tells her “No matter how much you refuse me, I will marry you.” For those who do not believe marital rape is possible or who believe the best place for a young girl is in her husband’s house, this disturbing novel should cause them to reexamine their assumptions.

As against the sort of arguments I’ve seen this week that girls will become wayward if they are not married young, Wa Zai Auri Jahila? provides a different and much needed voice—the perspective of a girl herself. Balaraba Ramat Yakubu has spoken in interviews about how she herself was married as a very young girl to a man much older than her, and her portrayal of Abu’s suffering and determination to succeed rings true. She resists the temptation to caricature Abu’s antagonists as simple evil villains, however. Abu’s father, despite his pride, comes to regret what he has done to his daughter. Even Sarkin Noma who violently forces himself on his young bride dwindles to a pathetic character, shocked by the secrets his wives have kept from him, and frittering away his life longing for a woman he cannot have. The novel does not demonize particular characters so much as show how a patriarchal culture traps and degrades even those men whom it supposedly benefits.

Though Abu is victimized by men as a child, she refuses to stay a victim. Haunted by Amadu’s harsh words about her lack of education, she determines to better herself. She is fortunate to have an aunt in Kano who supports her in her quest for education, and the village girl Amadu rejected for her “ignorance” proves her brilliance once she enrolls in remedial classes. As Abu grows in years, knowledge, and maturity, changing her name from Abu to Zainab, her old antagonist Sarkin Noma dwindles into a pitiful creature. It is as if her success emasculates him. Indeed “…almost everyone knew that Sarkin Noma was no longer a man.” Yet, Zainab’s education is a blessing to almost everyone else, including the other men in her life. Though she makes Amadu suffer when he comes back from schooling in England, he comes to realize how badly he had treated her. Similarly she is able to influence her father so that her sister is not married at a young age as she was but instead allowed to go to secondary school. The title is ultimately ironic, as over the course of the novel the power shifts to create a more equal relationship between men and women. The question becomes not “Who will marry an ignorant woman,” but who is worthy to marry an educated one?

For all the horror of part one, part two is full of sweetness. As I read the last one hundred pages I had a huge smile on my face. There are several love stories here, but the most tender ones are between old married couples. I was touched by the scene where Abu’s parents, Malam Garba and Bengyel, make up after a long quarrel, with Malam Garba humbly apologizing to his wife. The endearments between Zainab’s aunt Hajiya Kumatu and her husband Malam Sango, married for twenty-three years despite their childlessness, brought tears

Hajiya Balaraba’s 1990 novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne.

to my eyes. As with Hajiya Balaraba’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, the happiest moments here occur in households where there is one man and one wife.
In addition to demonstrating the attractiveness of love between one man and one woman, this novel provides a contextual lens through which to view the issue of child marriage. First, as Hajiya Balaraba notes in the introduction to the second part of the novel, the book serves as a warning to parents who force their daughters into marriage, and particularly illustrates the horrors faced by a thirteen year old given to a 52 year old man. Abu would have been much better off had Amadu, who was only four or five years older than her, married her as originally planned. Yet, even that marriage, the author implies, would have had its problems. In his teenage years, Amadu was immature, made the wrong friends, and chased the wrong kinds of women. He was not at a stage where he could have provided a stable home for Abu. Similarly, marriage at 13 for Abu not only complicated her ability to continue her studies but also damaged her body. Although she had gone through puberty, she was not developed enough to give birth successfully, and her old husband’s rough treatment injured her badly.  While not explicitly condemning young marriage in the novel, the author demonstrates the contrast between Abu’s marriage as a child and the much healthier marriage between more educated financially-independent characters in their twenties.

There were occasional moments in the novel that I wish were different. There are several small factual errors which could easily be fixed in the next edition, such as implying that Oxford University, which Amadu attends, is in the city of London. I wish that instead of pursuing nursing, Zainab had gone all the way and become a doctor. I also wish that the unfaithful woman for whom Amadu left Abu was not portrayed as a Christian Yoruba. That said, the author, elsewhere, does portray positive relationships with the “Other.” Amadu meets several kind British characters in England and his friendship with the British woman Jennifer ends up helping him redeem his past mistake. Similarly, in Hajiya Balaraba’s 2006 novel Matar Uba Jaraba, part of the story is set in Ibadan where the Hausa boy Aminu grows up with kind Yoruba neighbours and marries his childhood sweetheart Shola. Ultimately, despite these flaws, Wa Zai Auri Jahila? is an important novel, which gives voice and agency to the “girl-child” who is so often used as a pawn in ideological battles but rarely gets the chance to speak for herself. I just wish that everyone could read Hausa and enjoy as much as I have this novel that takes you from the depths of horror to the joyful heights of love.

In anticipation of tonight’s announcement by the Caine Prize for African Writing

Caine Prize Nominees Elnathan John, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Chinelo Okparanta and Pede Hollist gather around the platform after an event (c) CM

I have been absent from this blog for a long time, mostly because I am trying to focus on writing my dissertation and many of “my thoughts exactly” appear in my column with Weekly Trust. But I miss blogging, and I feel like there are many things I have missed out on addressing. So, I was determined to post on the Caine Prize for African Writing before tonight’s winner is announced. (Please note that I posted this running for a plane. I will update it with more photos by tomorrow.)

I am writing from London, where I was able to arrange a long layover in between trips, to attend the Africa Writes Festival and the Caine Prize events. I will write later in my column or on this blog about the festival as a whole and you can view my photos of the event here, but in this post I will focus on the Caine Prize. I have been interested in the Caine Prize for a long time, first because it was this prize that in 2001 propelled Helon Habila, on whose novel Waiting for an Angel I wrote my (very flawed) MA thesis, to international fame and more recently because of all the discourse on social media surrounding it. Last year, I was troubled by the statement made by last year’s Caine Prize chair Nigerian-British writer Bernadine Evaristo that it was time to “move past” depictions of suffering in Africa (this is the same year bombs had started going off all over northern Nigeria), a sentiment she repeated in this year’s Africa Writes panel  “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” in which she indicated that she made sure a story that “checked all the boxes” of African stereotypes did not make it onto the shortlist last year. (I will discuss this panel in another post)  I responded to her 2012 essay in my column and on my blog here and also in a comment on Saturday’s panel, arguing that such rhetoric  risks silencing those writers living in Africa, who are writing about their own experiences.

2012 Chair of the Caine Prize, Bernadine Evaristo speaks on the panel “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” 6 July 2013 (c) CM

This year, I was particularly excited when the Caine Prize shortlist was announced in May. Not only were four out of the five nominees Nigerians, but also my two good friends, Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim were nominated for the prize for stories I had read in manuscript form!Their nomination felt like poetic justice, as last year their attempts to attend the 2012 Caine Prize workshop in South Africa, to which they had been invited and had tickets, were truncated (my respects to Elnathan

Elnathan and Abubakar at the Caine Prize workshop in Uganda, April 2013

Elnathan and Abubakar at the Caine Prize workshop in Uganda, April 2013. Courtesy Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Facebook page

who has popularized this term) by South African bureaucracy. Elnathan’s visa was delayed until it was too late to attend, while Abubakar was unfortunate enough to fly into Johannesburg in the middle of the scuffle between South Africa and Nigeria over yellow-fever vaccination cards and was sent back to Lagos without ever making it to the workshop. (See my long post from March of last year for more details.)  Fortunately, the Caine Prize  re-invited them again this year, and they were able to attend the workshop held in Entebbe, Uganda. 

That means that in this year’s Caine Prize anthology, A Memory this Size and other Stories, Elnathan and Abubakar both have two stories, Elnathan’s “Bayan Layi” for which he received the Caine Prize nomination and “A Memory this Size,” after which the anthology is named, and Abubakar’s “The Whispering Trees” for which he received the Caine Prize nomination, and “The Book of Remembered Things,” which he wrote at the workshop.

The other nominees were Chinelo Okparanta for her story “America,” Tope Folarin for his story “Miracle” and Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollist, the one non-Nigerian on the list (though he does have Yoruba ancestry stemming from Abeokuta!) for his story “Foreign Aid.”

The 2013 Caine Prize nominated writers during the 6 July “Meet the 2013 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writers” event at the British Library: (left to right) Elnathan John, Chinelo Okparanta, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, (moderator: Jacqueline Auma): Tope Folarin, Pede Hollist (c) CM

There have been quite a few blog reviews of the stories, and much discussion on social media. The Facebook group Writivism, in particular, set out to discuss all five stories before the prize was announced and express which story they would give the prize were they to have that authority. (A little after 6pm about four hours before the actual announcement, they proclaimed the winner of the Writivism contest Abubakar Adam Ibrahim). There was some amount of negative reaction from reviewers who complained that the prize was going back to pre-Evaristo days of depicting  stereotypical portraits of Africa, or, in this case, of Nigeria. One blogger, Nta Bassey, borrowed from Elnathan’s “How to” format, made famous by his now completed “How to” series with the Daily Times, to satirically skewer what she saw as the continuation of stereotypical themes in the stories, in “How to Write a Caine Prize Story (Whatever that Is).” While I think her post is clever and while I understand concerns about “poverty porn,” particularly as it is produced by Western charities, I think this sort of rhetoric is problematic and often times shallow because it makes too many generalizations by theme rather than looking at the nuances and particularities of the specific texts. It is like that silly, unfortunate accusation that made the rounds on Facebook last year that Rotimi Babatunde had supposedly plagiarized Biyi Bandele’s novel Burma Boy for his then nominated (it later won the prize) story “Bombay’s Republic” because both novel and short story dealt with the experience of Nigerian soldiers in Burma during World War II–as if one author can own a whole war. As I discussed last year after Evaristo’s blog post, there is a problem in trying to police which themes are acceptable, instead of looking at the quality of how each particular story has been written. Elnathan has often addressed this problem on Facebook, twitter, and recently in his satirical “Because I Care” column in Sunday Trust, responding sarcastically to Helon Habila’s review of Noviolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need  New Names:

If white people did not split us up into funny countries, we would have been one strong large territory and so everyone writing in this territory must remember what it means to be an African writer. It means that you must carry Africa on your shoulders. It means that you must be a good ambassador and ignore all the corruption that African leaders perpetrate. Ignore the fact that we have warlords all over Africa who use children in war. Ignore the poverty and pain and refugee camps. Anyone who writes about Africa and anal rape is a bad person. Even white people are tired of it. No one wants to feel guilty about this. Moreover, Africa is rising. Thanks to the World Bank and International donors, we now have some classrooms, some mosquito nets, local NGO’s for women who get raped in war and conflict, and very rich politicians and their friends, some of who make it to the Forbes list of richest people. Why should anyone write anything bad about us?

(Interestingly, blogger Chika Oduah reads Elnathan’s story “Bayan Layi” through Helon Habila’s review to argue that Elnathan subsumes the stereotypical headline to a story of “characters who are frank in an innocent kind of way that manages not to intimidate the reader”–she reads the story as one Habila would approve of.) During the interview with his father on 6 July 2013 “Two Writers, Two Generations,” Mukoma wa Ngugi called such rhetoric “Afro-Optimism,” arguing that an insistence on focusing on “Africa Rising” narratives rather than on those that deal with Africa’s problems can stifle political discourse.

Elnathan, who made a point of not reading reviews of his work before the prize was announced, explained to interviewer Mercy Abang that the story, which some have read as stereotypical “poverty porn,” was inspired by an almajiri he used to know while he was in university:

Bayan Layi was inspired by an almajiri friend of mine, with whom I maintained contact over a period of about 6 years when I lived in Zaria. Basiru was from Sokoto and studied in a Quranic school near my house. He also, like hundreds of others did chores for students, washing plates, clothes and going on errands. Thinking of it now I wonder if that was not some sort of child labour.
Basiru was a gentle boy with the cutest, purest, most uninhibited smile I had ever seen on an almajiri. Unlike many students, I let him hang around my house and we had long conversations about his life and about mine. It was hard to estimate his age but I would say between 10 and 14.

During the “Meet the 2013 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writers” panel on 6 July at the British Library, he also mentioned that he had written the story following the election violence in Northern Nigeria in 2011, as a kind of explanation to other Nigerians who often talk about “the north” in stereotypical ways. There is a difference, for example, he pointed out between the thugs who take drugs (and do not necessarily know very much about the Qur’an) and are often used in election violence and the almajirai who are studying the Qur’an. There are sometimes almajirai who join the yan daba (thugs), as happens in his story, but the two, often conflated, are not the same. When the moderator Jacqueline Auma pointed out that the story felt like a universal tale about street children everywhere, Elnathan answered that the stories that feel the most universal will be those that are the most rooted in a specific context.

Tope Folarin similarly pointed to the particularity of the American setting of his story “Miracle,” which on my first reading I had thought could be set just as easily in Nigeria, arguing that it was in his interest in the diaspora community that inspired the story. The miracles that the  audience in the Pentecostal church of his story are looking for are tied directly to their experience in America, as they are living in a land seen as a miracles by those in Nigeria trying to get visas (the pastor , yet need miracles once they arrive to fulfill these dreams. As the narrator of the story says,

We need jobs. We need good grades. We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians.

Folarin’s story, too, illustrates how a story rooted in a particular context can feel  relevant to a “universal” audience. Abubakar Adam also explained in talks that his story “The Whispering Trees,” which one interviewer said felt the “least African” and therefore the most universal [?]of the stories, was rooted in a northern Nigerian context where the spiritual is taken as a given. Like the others, he focused on the story of an individual in a specific context, yet readers like Jeffrey Zuckerman felt it could have as well been “set in the Catskill mountains [...] or in the Middle East—but its Nigerian locale gives a tinge of familiarity to a location that media reports have made wholly foreign to Anglophone culturati.” When commenters asked Chinelo Okparanta about the “realism” of the parent’s mild reaction to their daughters same sex relationship, she argued that to say there can only be one reaction only homogenizes the multiplicity that exists within the country, again arguing for the individual story. Of all of the stories, I felt that Pede Hollist’s satirical story “Foreign Aid” dealt less with an individual story than with a typed character–but that is perhaps what made it so funny. He explained during one of the events that he pushed the character a bit to the extreme so that an audience could recognize him and his problematic misunderstandings of his former home without feeling personally affronted, and as a satire, I think the story works quite well.

All of these authors have been interviewed a great deal since their nominations, including multiple interviews with BBC and other news agencies here in London since they have arrived. For those curious about their own take on the Caine Prize and their own writing, check out these interviews, some of them published before the shortlist was released:

“My Book presents Nigerian stories from another Angle -Ibrahim” with Awwal Gaata in Blueprint.

“The Reader’s Heart is the most important award to win-Abubakar Ibrahim” an Interview with Sumaila Umaisha on Everythin Literature, 19 August 2012

Whispering for More,” an interview with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim by Edozie Udeze and Hannah Ojo

“Two Friends One Prize” an Interview with Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim on Metropole, 1 July 2013

I Wasn’t Expecting the Caine Prize Nomination:  Elnathan John speaks on ‘Conversations with Mercy Abang.’” on Y-Naija, 27 May 2013

“This Week’s Guest: Elnathan John” in Eugenia Abu’s reading column in Sunday Trust, 2 June 2013

“Religion, Morality, and Personal Responsibility: an Interview with Chinelo Okparanta” by Rae Winklestein-Duveneck for The Iowa Review

Emmanuel Sigauke’s interview with Chinelo Okparanta for the Munyori Literary Journal, 22 May 2013

“Interview: Chinelo Okparanta” by Adam Segal for Whole Beast Rag

Interview: Chinelo Okparanta” by Yuka Igarashi for Granta, 10 February 2012

“Cathartic Release: an Interview with Chinelo Okparanta” by Adedamola Mogaji for Saraba

Pede Hollist, 2013 Caine Prize shortlisted writer,” on Vitabu Books.

Tope Folarin Speaks to Nigerians Talk” by Kola Tubosun for Nigerians Talk

“Brittle Paper interviews Caine Prize shortlistee Tope Folarin” 5 June 2013

Below, I will copy the (rather sleep-deprived) column I wrote when the shortlist first came out. I didn’t join the Caine Prize blogger group because I felt I would be too biased, but I did make a few observations about the make-up of the prize:

Nigeria’s Four Caine Prize Nominees

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 18 May 2013 05:00
Written by Carmen McCain

The last few weeks (as usual) have been full of bad news: the cultists attack in Nasarawa, attacks in Southern Kaduna, continued attacks in the northeast leading to the declaration of emergency rule in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Last week in an article about Kannywood, I talked about the tensions I feel in celebrating film in the midst of so much suffering, but concluded with the thoughts that the multitude of stories coming out of Nigeria are important because they challenge what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story.” As the griot in the Dani Kouyate film Keita: the heritage of a griot, said “‘Do you know why the hunter always beats the lion in the stories? If the lion told the stories, he’d win sometimes too.’ [Achebe has also recounted this proverb in Home and Exile.] The logic of the proverb extends even further to the antelope, which is hunted by both the human and the lion. Because when the oppressed, those ‘antelopes’ caught between lion and hunter, tell their own stories and are heard, they have the potential to affect audiences for centuries.” As the news on Nigeria’s security gets worse and worse, there has been a welcome break in the continuing recognition of Nigerian literature on a global stage. On 14 May, the Commonwealth prize announced E.E. Sule as the Africa-region winner of the Commonwealth prize for his novel Sterile Sky (Pearson Education, 2012), a coming of age novel of the son of a policeman growing up in Kano in the midst of crisis [which I was lucky enough to read in manuscript form before it was published]. On 15 May, the Caine Prize for African writing announced their shortlist of five stories nominated for the prestigious short story prize from 96 submissions out of 16 different African countries. Four of the five nominations were for short stories written by Nigerians: “Bayan Layi” first published in Per Contra by Abuja-based Sunday Trust columnist Elnathan John; “Miracle” first published in Transition by Washington D.C. based former Rhodes Scholar Tope Folarin; “The Whispering Trees” first published in the collection of short stories of the same name published by Abuja-based Sunday Trust literary editor and writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim; and “America” first published in Granta by U.S. based Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Chinelo Okparanta. [Pede Hollist's "Foreign Aid" was the one non-Nigerian offering on the list.] These four nominations come on the heels of Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde’s Caine Prize win last year for his story “Bombay’s Republic.”

I was particularly excited about my friends Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John making the short list. Their nominations are poetic justice, following the disappointment both writers suffered in March of last year, when they were invited to the Caine Prize workshop in South Africa. Elnathan was not granted his visa in time to make the trip, while Abubakar made it all the way to Johannesburg before he was turned back by immigration officers during Nigeria’s row with South Africa over the yellow fever vaccine, despite having a valid yellow fever certificate. Both writers were re-invited to the Caine workshop held in Uganda in April of this year, and have now, incredibly, both been shortlisted for the prize this year. I am so proud. (Take that South Africa!) But beyond my personal delight at having two good friends on the list, I am also thrilled that so many Nigerians were shortlisted. It is much needed good news in a time when so much else is wrong. This Caine Prize shortlist, as well as the award of the Commonwealth prize to Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai-based novelist E.E. Sule indicates a new attention to stories coming out of northern Nigeria, which in the past has had much less global visibility than literature coming from the south. To be sure, there is something a little troubling about some of the most prestigious prizes for African writers being granted by European institutions—the NLNG is offering a welcome corrective to that—but all the same the Commonwealth Prize and the Caine Prize are doing good work by bringing attention to some of the most exciting young writers on the continent. It seems symbolic that the title story from Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s collection of short stories The Whispering Trees was honoured, as it was the first book signed and published by exciting new Nigerian publisher Parresia Publishers.  [When Parresia signed The Whispering Trees as their first title, the publisher Richard Ali asked me to come photograph it.] There’s a new generation of writers and publishers bursting on scene.

Richard Ali (left) signs the advance for Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s (right) novel The Whispering Trees, Parresia’s first title. (c) Carmen McCain

Obviously, having two such good friends on the shortlist and having read both stories in manuscript form before publication, it is difficult for me to objectively review the stories this year. However, I will make a few observations from a first reading of all five stories. First, obviously the judges this year were not making decisions about the stories based on issues of representation. Not only did Nigerians dominate the list, but men did as well, with only one of the stories written by a woman, Chinelo Okparanta. Interestingly, all four of the Nigerian stories were told in first person, while Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollists’s story was told in a satirical third person. As for theme, three of the stories deal in some way with the African immigrant experience in America. Tope Folarin’s charming story “Miracle” is set in a Pentecostal healing service in the United States, although the setting could just as well be in Nigeria. Two of the other stories deal more specifically with the immigrant’s American dream. The one non-Nigerian on the list, Florida-based Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollist revisits a theme that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s dealt with in my favourite story from last year’s Caine prize shortlist “La Salle de Depart,” but with a satirical eye: the trials of a returnee from America who comes for a short visit to Sierra Leone and attempts to impress everyone with his lavish gifts. Chinelo Okparanta’s story is told from the other side of the ocean, of how a woman who desires a life in America away from the judgmental eyes of her society,  is able to draw from the environmental disaster of an oil spill in America to persuade a visa officer that she is legitimate applicant. While it touches on gay/lesbian issues similar to last year’s nominee Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial,” I thought Okparanta’s story this year was much more sophisticated and nuanced. Although the preceding three short stories all deal, in some way, with the immigrant experience and dreams of living abroad, the stories by Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim deal with the experiences of ordinary people living, loving, and managing in northern Nigeria. Elnathan John’s “Bayan Layi” is a first person story told from the eyes of a young almajiri caught up in Kaduna election violence. Making skillful use of Hausa terminology and codeswitching between English and Hausa, it beautifully captures the voice of a street-child. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “The Whispering Trees” tells the story of a young man’s journey towards accepting the terrible effects of a car accident. Unlike any of the other stories this year, however, his story takes a mystical turn that reminds me of South American magical realism.
I hope to write more about these stories and other works by these authors in the future. But in the meantime, I hope readers will go to the Caine prize website [www.caineprize.com] and read the stories for themselves. Let me know what you think. A big congratulations to all of the writers who made it this year.

Conversation with Nkem Ivara, author of Closer than a Brother and literary event “Excuse Us, London!” on April 6

The death of Chinua Achebe has been much on my mind that past few weeks. He was one of my favourite authors and a life mentor through his writing. I plan to post some of my thoughts on him by the end of the week.

In the meantime, I wanted to post this email interview I did with Nkem Ivara, whose first novel/novella Closer than a Brother was published by Whispers Publishing on 8 March. She will be reading from the romance novel Closer than a Brother alongside artist and writer Victor Ehikhamenor, who will be reading from his nonfiction essay collectionExcuse Me!, published by Parresia Publishers, at the literary event, Excuse Us London! at The Africa Centre, 38 King Street, Covent Garden, London, Saturday, April 6, 2013, 2-5:30pm. Popular literary critic Ikhide Ikheloa and writer Ike Anya will moderate, and artist Inua Ellams will give a poetry performance. I wish I were going to be in London, as it sounds like one of the funnest literary events of the year!

(I downloaded the poster below from Facebook, where it has been making the rounds. I love it that Pa Ikhide, as we twitter groupies call him, is pictured on his keke, on which he is always *cycling slowly away*)

Excuse me London--advert

publicity poster by Victor Ehikhamenor

For a few interviews and other relevant sites for Nkem Ivara and Victor Ehikhamenor, see these links:

Victor Ehikhamenor (his website) To purchase Excuse Me!, if you are in Nigeria, you can order through Parresia or the online vendors Konga.com.ng or Jumia.com.ng. If you are outside of Nigeria, you can order  it from Amazon.com

March/April 2008 Sentinel Poetry interview 

27 November 2012 YNaija interview 

30 November 2012 BBC podcast 

3 January 2013 Author Q&A on Miss Ojikutu

Nkem Ivara (her blogTo purchase Closer than a Brother, you can order it online from Amazon.com or other online vendors listed at the end of the interview below.

16 November 2011, She writes the charming story of how she met her husband on Myne Whitman’s blog.

6 March 2013 JustJoxy’s review of Closer than a Brother

9 March 2013 An Interview with Myne Whitman

11 March 2013 An Interview with Kiru Taye

Here is the email interview I did with Nkem Ivara. It was originally published in Weekly Trust on 30 March 2013. Because the Weekly Trust website is having some malware issues, I’m providing a link to the interview as it appeared on AllAfrica.com.

I hope to write more about Closer than a Brother in the future and read more of the romance literature being written by Ivara’s contemporaries. I think this writing is really important, in part, because there is a huge reading public for it. Closer than a Brother already has 6 reader reviews on Amazon. When people repeat the cliche that there is no reading public in Nigeria, they don’t seem to be taking into consideration the appetite for popular literature, such as the thousands of Hausa romances and thrillers being published in northern Nigeria, or the rapidly expanding English-language Nigerian romance and erotica being made available online, whether through formally published e-novels like Closer than a Brother or informally published stories on blogs. Here is the interview. Enjoy.

Nkem Ivara (c) CM

Nkem Ivara (c) CM

Conversation With Nkem Ivara, 

Author of ‘Closer Than a Brother’

BY CARMEN MCCAIN, 30 MARCH 2013

INTERVIEW

Happy Easter! The most momentous news in world literature since I turned in last week’s column has been the passing of one of Nigeria’s greatest authors, Chinua Achebe. This week I will highlight the work of one of his literary granddaughters, London-based author Nkem Ivara, whose first novel, the 80-page Closer than a Brother was published on 8 March by Whispers Publishing. In the novel, Daye and Sami have been like brother and sister ever since 15-year-old Daye saved 12-year-old Sami from bullies. Fifteen years later in London, can Daye and Sami can make something more of their relationship without putting their long friendship at risk? Fans of romance will love the banter and sexual tension between these best friends. Will they end up together? Read to find out.Nkem Ivara agreed to an email interview for today’s column. She will read from the novel during a shared literary event with Victor Ehikhaminor at the Africa Centre in London on 6 April 2013.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your novel Closer than a Brother?

I am married to a real-life drop-dead gorgeous, tall, dark and handsome hero and we have two very active boys. I enjoy playing word games, reading and hanging out with friends over a meal. I love to organise and co-ordinate events. I also enjoy watching back-to-back episodes of some American TV series e.g. Scandal, Criminal Minds, The Good Wife, Greys’ Anatomy etc.

I have been writing for a while but only started doing so seriously when I met some other writers who encouraged me to pursue it in earnest. Closer than a Brother is my first published novel. It is about best friends who fall in love but are completely unaware their feelings are mutual. Daye Thompson and Samantha Egbuson grew up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and now live in London. Neither is willing to risk losing the friendship by revealing their true feelings. The story is told from both points of view and explores the resulting conflict and complications as they each try to conceal their feelings for the other.

When did you start writing?

Since my teens, I have dabbled in writing on and off but was reluctant to call myself a writer for fear of being asked to prove it by showing published work. That all changed a few years ago when I started writing in earnest.

What inspires you to write?

I am inspired by the world around me; and human stories of love and triumph in the face of difficulty speak to me evocatively. I love to watch people and then make up stories about them. I tend to play a game of ‘What if?’ in my head. I imagine what would happen if things went a different way. Sometimes stories are birthed from this silly exercise. For me, writing is therapeutic, it centres me and helps sort out my thought processes. It affords me the chance to let my imagination run wild.

How did the idea for this novel come to you?

I cannot remember exactly and I feel a bit like this Steve Jobs quote, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

I sat down one day determined to write a story. I wanted to write something I would enjoy reading, and I have always liked the idea of best friends falling in love. I think friendship is a great foundation for building a romantic relationship. It is different from meeting someone new and trying to put your best foot forward to make yourself more appealing. The awkwardness of making new acquaintances may be absent but it presents its own set of challenges too. To fall in love with someone whose faults and foibles one is all too familiar with takes some doing. I think that is just special.

What was the process like?

The actual writing process was a lot of fun. I would write a chapter a day, and then send it to my beta-readers to critique. Beta-readers are people who read works-in-progress with the aim of improving the plot, characters, grammar etc. Their feedback was generally very positive and their suggestions helped me fine-tune the story.

Could you tell me a little bit about the Romance Writers of West Africa online community that you are a part of?

RWoWA is a support group for writers of West African origin dedicated to the growth of African romantic fiction worldwide. It was founded originally with four members, Kiru Taye, Lara Daniels, Myne Whitman and me in 2011. With the increasing demand for the African romance genre, RWoWA strives to support established and aspiring romance authors who emphasise African plot lines. All sub-categories in romance writing are covered: contemporary, historical, inspirational, paranormal and science fiction. It provides a platform for peer-to-peer critique of works-in-progress. The members have been extremely supportive by acting as beta-readers, suggesting tips and tricks to improve my work and also suggesting publishers to pitch to.

Do you write other kinds of genres, or is romance your main oeuvre?

I write whatever takes my fancy, but I am a hopeless romantic, and I do have a soft spot for romance. I write it because there is something profoundly fulfilling about the trials and triumphs of love and relationships. That whimsical combination of wistful melancholy and joyous rhapsody gets to me every time.

Could you tell me about how you found your publisher and the editing process?

Kiru Taye, a friend and founding member of RWoWA, suggested a list of publishers I should submit to. I chose four of those in addition to an African publisher. I submitted to all five according to their guidelines, and three of them responded within a few weeks. The first wanted to publish it subject to some changes of certain words and phrases like brand names etc. The second wanted to publish as it was, and the third was a very positive upbeat rejection.

I decided to go with Whispers because they liked the story exactly as it was and would only make editorial changes. The fourth publisher contacted me saying they, too, wanted to publish it but I had already signed with Whispers, so I had to turn them down.

The editing process was not as painful as I had anticipated. We had two rounds of edits. The first highlighted certain words that had occurred too often and the second was mostly getting rid of some of my 116 exclamation marks!

Any plans for future books set in Nigeria?

Yes, I have two books in the offing, both of which are set in Nigeria. One is about a married couple who have to deal with the pain and betrayal of infidelity. The other is about a couple who are manipulated into getting married.

What is your writing process like? How does your family factor into your writing?

My writing process is fluid and adaptable. As a wife and mother of two young boys, I have learned to be flexible about my schedule. I try to write everyday but I am not always successful. There are good days and some not so good days. I do not like to call them bad because though I may not actually have written anything, I am constantly thinking about the story and working on it in my head.

My husband is extremely supportive. He not only gives me room to write when I need to, but also actively encourages me to do so. I usually wait until the boys are in school or after they are in bed; it is quieter then and I can hear myself think. However, if I have a deadline, I will sometimes write to the noise of their boisterous play.

Where is the book available?

Your readers can buy my book at the Whispers Website, All Romance Ebooks, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. You don’t need an e-reader to read an e-book. You can download the Kindle app to your computer, android phone, iPad etc. Readers can find me on Twitter as @thewordsmythe and my blog www.thewordsmythe.wordpress.com

Making History with Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy… (a review)

A few months ago, I posted the news about the publication of a translation of Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne as Sin is a Puppy… by Indian Publisher Blaft. 

On 3 November 2012 I published a review of the novel-in-translation in my column in Weekly Trust. I am only just now getting around to posting it on my blog, which you can read if you scroll down past the links below. Since publication in October 2012, there have been quite a few reviews and articles about the novel posted online, most of them from India. In fact the number of reviews I’ve found are overwhelming. How many Nigerian novels published in Nigeria get this kind of critical response? We need to do better. But I’m thrilled that Hajiya Balaraba is finally getting the attention she deserves!

5 August 2012 A brief mention as a forthcoming book in DNA India’s “Booked in the Second Half.” 

26 October 2012 Bookshy mentions Sin is a Puppy in a post about Hausa popular literature.

1 November 2012 A mention in The Caravan: A Journal of Politics and Culture

3 November 2012  My own review of the novel for Weekly Trust.

4 November 2012 Dhamini Ratnam’s article for the Pune Mirror: “A Filmi Affair in Nigeria” (Reprinted by Blueprint)

4 November 2012 Deepanjana Pal’s article for DNA: “How Bollywood Fought for the Nigerian Woman.” (She posts the “unsnipped version” on her own blog.)

17 November 2012 A promotion for the novel on Nana Fredua-Agyeman’s blog ImageNations

22 November 2012 Seema Misra’s review on her blog. 

25 November 2012 A Review on The Financial Express  and The Times of India

29 November 2012 Aishwarya S’s Review on the blog “Practically Marzipan.”

7 December 2012 Subashini Navaratnam’s detailed and thoughtful review on Pop Matters. (And some follow-up observations on her own The Blog of Disquiet)

14 December 2012 Deepa Dharmadhikari’s charming review on Live Mint. (reposted on Emeka Lison’s blog.)

16 December 2012 Tolu Ihidero’s review for Ariya Today.

30 December 2012 The heroine Rabi gets a mention in DNA India’s list of unforgettable fictional characters of 2012!

5 January 2013 A thoughtful review on President Blink-Blink

6 January 2013 Shelley Walia’s review in The Hindu, one of India’s most respected papers.

1 March 2013 Sandra Rafaela’s post on the Women of the African Diaspora site.

18 March 2013 Guernica Art Editor Glenna Gordon picks Sin is a Puppy as her Springtime Read, Guernica Magazine.

You can find other reviews on the Goodreads page for Sin is a Puppy.

If you would like to read Sin is a Puppy, you can buy it directly from Blaft, or read it as an ebook on Kindle or Nook. Blaft has made the first chapter available for free.  You can read an interview with Hajiya Balaraba here. 

Here is my review for Weekly Trust, published on 3 November 2012:

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu

Making History with Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy…

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 03 November 2012 06:00
Written by Carmen McCain
Last week independent Indian publisher Blaft released Sin is a Puppy (that Follows you Home), a translation by Aliyu Kamal, of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s 1990 Hausa novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne (Ubangidansa yakan bi). Publisher Rakesh Khanna makes an unfortunate error when he claims that “This book, is to the best of our knowledge, the first published English translation of a complete novel from Hausa,” an inaccuracy that I hope he will change in their next print run. Hausa novels like Abubakar Imam’s Ruwan Bagaja and Muhammadu Bello Wali’s Gandoki have been abridged and translated and used in the Nigerian school curriculum, and a translation of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s novel Shaihu Umar is available for sale abroad. [Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino's brilliant bestselling novel In da So da Kauna was also violently abridged and awkwardly translated into The Soul of My Heart.] However, this publication is still quite significant. It marks the first international publication in translation of a contemporary Hausa novel from what is sometimes called the Hausa “soyayya/love” genre, a literary movement of mostly self-published authors that began in the mid-1980s. In fact, as far as I know, Hajiya Balaraba is the first female Hausa novelist to be published in translation. An excerpt of Alhaki Kukuyo Ne was earlier translated by William Burgess and published in the 2002 anthology, Readings in African Popular Fiction, edited by Stephanie Newell. The novel was also adapted into a film directed by Abdulkareem Muhammad in 1998 and has been the subject of scholarly work by Abdalla Uba Adamu, Novian Whitsitt, and others.

The novel tells the story of a Rabi, a woman married to a stingy, womanizing business man, Alhaji Abdu. Although she has nine children to take care of, her husband only gives her five naira a day to prepare their meals, while he spends over ten naira a day on restaurants and entertaining other women.  (Beyond literary value, the novel is also useful for tracking the inflation of the past twenty years!) Rabi pays for school fees from the money she makes cooking and selling food and takes care of Alhaji Abdu’s daughter from another marriage as if she were her own. Alhaji Abdu’s decision to marry an old prostitute as a second wife, however, brings Rabi’s misery to a climax. When the women quarrel, Alhaji Abdu throws Rabi and her nine children out on the street. The rest of the novel traces the decisions Rabi makes in her newly independent life, her daughter Saudatu’s marriage, and the continuing drama as Alhaji Abdu continues to alienate friends and family on behalf of his new ungrateful wife.

The suffering of the women in the novel seems to be, in large part, because of the patriarchal attitudes of polygamous husbands. As much as Rabi’s daughter Saudatu’s marriage to the devoted Alhaji Abubakar is described in romantic terms, she does suffer in the marriage as the third wife in a household of quarrelsome women. Even when she is alone with her husband, she is unable to rest after she gives birth because her husband wants her to continue looking after all the children he has had with his other wives. The other wives are portrayed harshly, but there is a sense that their quarrels come out of their being forced to co-exist with rivals. Even the men described sympathetically in the novel are sometimes unkind and imperious towards their wives. There are no feminist directives here, but a sense of unease and dissatisfaction at the plight in which women find themselves.  The happiest couples seem to be those who are made up of one man and one wife.

Although so-called soyayya novels are often stereotyped as being unrealistic romance novels, Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, reminds me more of the classic muckraking novels of Charles Dickens, who threw a harsh moral light on the injustices of his own society. Neither does the narrative work like a typical English-language “romance novel” but rather with the uncertainty and ambiguity of modernist social realism. The novel does not resolve into a happy ending. There are no neat ends tied off.  Alhaji Abdu does get his comeuppance, when, as the proverbial title foreshadows, his sins catch up with him. However, there is no reward for the virtuous Rabi. Male relatives, who had initially denounced Alhaji for his abuse and vowed their support for Rabi, end up transferring their loyalties back to their fellow man in the end. The status quo is preserved. Lessons are learned, and society continues on, but no one is left very happy. Hajiya Balaraba questions whether men, in such situations, are actually following religious prescriptions or merely following cultural norms that privilege their own comfort and pleasure over their wives’ wellbeing.

The translator Aliyu Kamal, an English professor at Bayero University, does fine work here. His translation for Blaft reads much more smoothly and naturally than the excerpt translated by William Burgess for Readings in African Popular Fiction. Professor Kamal’s writing skills as the author of ten novels in English are obvious. This is not to say there were not issues with the translation. He sometimes leaves out important content and nuance. In the original preface, for example, Hajiya Balaraba begins the novel with a prayer of gratitude to Allah before launching into a summary of the novel. The translation leaves out the prayer and goes directly to the summary. He also leaves out another particularly pointed sentence in the preface, where Hajiya Balaraba says that abusive, neglectful men “exist in every corner of this state.” He sometimes makes odd translation choices such as describing Rabi as “putting on her makeup” after a bath, rather than “oiling her body” as it is in the original, and sometimes he translates out certain ironies.  In the original, Alhaji Abdu tells his first wife Rabi that he’s got “good news” for her, that he plans to give her “a little sister,” a euphemism for adding a wife. In Kamal’s translation, however, the irony is translated out with Alhaji Abdu merely saying, “I have something to tell you. I plan to take a second wife.” A more careful translation could have maintained the nuance. I would, additionally, have preferred if he had left common food words in Hausa, allowing readers to infer from context that they are foods rather than translating “koko” and “kosai” and “tuwo” as “porridge” and “bean cakes” and “pudding.” Although I was originally startled by some of the larger structural adjustments to the texts, including rearranged chapters, perhaps these were wise editorial decisions, as they do make the story flow more smoothly. Overall, despite these flaws, the translation makes for a good read and I would love to see Professor Kamal do more of such work.

I am particularly delighted by the publication of this translation because it indicates that the larger world is beginning to appreciate novels that have often been denigrated by an intellectual elite in Nigeria. Critics, many of whom have read only a few of the novels, or none at all, often condemn an entire range of genres and literary accomplishment as “trashy romance novels.”  Ironically, while for the past twenty years thousands of novels have been written and consumed by eager readers, Nigeria’s well-known publishers have looked the other way and bemoaned the “lack of reading culture in Nigeria. It took an Indian company to recognize these innovations and search for translators to midwife Hausa creative expression to a larger global readership. Because of this, although the book can be ordered from India and is available in e-book versions, Sin is a Puppy…., like so many other contemporary Nigerian literary works, is more easily available to audiences abroad than it is to Nigerian audiences.  I hope this publication will wake up Nigerian publishers and encourage more English-language novelists to try their hands at translation. Perhaps the Association of Nigerian authors, a university, or other literary initiative could award funding to at least one writer/translator team a year?

Note: My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones and those who were wounded in the bomb at St. Rita’s church in Kaduna on 28 October and in the reprisal attacks that followed. May God bring the murderers to justice and grant us all comfort and peace.

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne/Sin is a Puppy Published in translation by Blaft

Exciting news! Indian publisher Blaft has published an English translation, by Aliyu Kamal, of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s 1990 novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne. Aliyu Kamal is a professor in the English Department at Bayero University and a prolific novelist in his own rightSee Blaft’s blog post on the release, where they give this blog a shout out. Hard copies can be ordered from their site, and ebooks for Kindle and epub ($4.99) are also available. To read the first chapter for free, click here. (Update 9 November 2012: Two Indian news sites have also published articles about the novel and the influence of Indian films on Hausa culture: Dhamini Ratnam writes “Filmi Affair in Nigeria” for the Pune Mirror (and briefly quotes me) and Deepanjana Pal writes “How Bollywood fought for the Nigerian Woman “for Daily News and Analysis. I’m not sure Sin is a Puppy… is the best novel to use as evidence of Indian films on Hausa culture, but I’m delighted at the attention the novel is receiving in India.) (UPDATE 8 March 2013: You can read my review of the novel published by Weekly Trust and find links to a lot of other reviews of the novel on my blog here.)

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu was one of the earliest authors of what came to be known as the soyayya Hausa literary movement or Kano Market Literature. While these books were often disparaged by critics as romance novels and pulp, Hajiya Balaraba’s novels are often muck-raking exposes of abuses that occur in private domestic spaces and make a case for women’s education and independence. Other soyayya books tell love stories from the perspective of Hausa youth and tales of the home from the perspective of women.

Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne, one of Hajiya Balaraba’s most popular and critically acclaimed novels, tells the story of the family of businessman Alhaji Abdu and his longsuffering wife Rabi, the domestic fireworks that explode when he decides to marry the “old prostitute” Delu as a second wife, and the stories of his children as they make their way in the world with only the support of their mother.

When I first read the book in Hausa in 2006, I described it as follows:

Like many Hausa novels, the title is part of a proverb: “crime is like a dog”… (it follows it’s owner). When the wealthy trader Alhaji Abdu marries an “old prostitute,” as a second wife, his family goes through a crisis. After a fight between the uwargida and her children and the new wife, Alhaji Abdu kicks his first wife and her ten [nine because Alhaji Abdu kept one daughter from another marriage] children out of his house, denies them any kind of support, and refuses to even recognize any of them in chance meetings on the street or when his eldest daughter gets married. What was initially a disaster for the abandoned wife Rabi becomes a liberating self-sufficiency. Supporting her children through cooking and selling food, she is able to put her eldest son through university and see the marriage of her eldest daughter to a rich alhaji. The book follows the story of Rabi, as she makes a life apart from marriage, and her daughter Saudatu, as she enters into marriage.

I have read the translation by Aliyu Kamal and I intend to post a longer review in the next few weeks. The novel was adapted into a film Alhaki Kwikwiyo Ne directed by Abdulkareem Muhammed in 1998. Novian Whitsitt has discussed the novel in his PhD dissertation (2000), Kano Market Literature and the Construction of Hausa-Islamic Feminism: A Contrast in Feminist Perspectives of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and Bilkisu Ahmed Funtuwa, and his article, “Islamic-Hausa Feminism and Kano Market Literature: Qur’anic Reinterpretation in the Novels of Balaraba Yakubu.” Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu has written about the screen adapatation in his book Transglobal Media Flows and African Popular Culture: Revolution and Reaction in Muslim Hausa Popular Culture and in a paper you can access online, “Private Sphere, Public Wahala: Gender and Delineation of Intimisphare in Muslim Hausa Video Films.”

As far as I know, this is the first time a full translation of a soyayya novel has been published internationally. An excerpt of Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne translated by William Burgess was published in Readings in African Popular Fiction, edited by Stephanie Newell, but Aliyu Kamal’s full translation, while it has a few issues, is much better–not quite so stiff. That is not to say there have been no other translations of Hausa literature. There are translations of the works of early authors like Abubakar Imam’s Ruwan Bagaja/The Water of Cure, Muhammadu Bello Wali’s Gandoki,  the first prime minister of Nigeria Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s Shaihu Umar, Munir Muhammad Katsin’as Zabi Naka/Make Your Choice and others. Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino’s bestselling novel In da So da Kauna (The two part novel sold over 100,000 copies) was translated as The Soul of My Heart,  but unfortunately, although the cover illustration (pictured here) was beautiful, the translation was exceedingly bad. It cut a charming novel that was over 200 pages down to about 80, turned witty banter into cliches, and translated out most of the dialogue Gidan-Dabino is so good at. The book needs to be re-translated, this time properly. I attempted to translate Gidan Dabino’s novel Kaico!, (an excerpt of the first chapter was published by Sentinel here), but stopped because of lack of time and because I felt like my translation was still too stiff and I needed to immerse in the language a little longer before attempting more translations. As the editorial of Nigerians Talk today pointed out, we need much more focus on translation in Nigeria.

[...] Hausa literature thrives. An old post on Jeremy Weate’s blog explores the disconnect between the idea of a thriving market selling up to “hundreds of thousands of copies” and a country that lives with a consensus that the Hausa don’t have a living literary establishment. Where are the top Hausa writers. How much of the content of their literature makes it into translation and out as a truly accessible text by other non-Hausa speakers? Where is the wall separating those work from the larger body of consumers all around Nigeria? What are the benefits and implications of this insularity that keeps a story locked only within a language medium, away from every other? And what is the value of such literature if it serves only a localized audience. What happened to universality? We won’t know any of this without active involvement of translators, and other conscious literary practitioners bringing us to the stories, and the stories to us. Like Achebe said, “my position…is that we must hear all the stories. That would be the first thing.”

I am very grateful to Blaft for initiating this translation and publication and hope that it will follow this novel with many more. The challenge will be finding translators. As I have said in a previous talk, I wish every Nigerian writer of English who spoke Hausa well would commit to translating at least one  Hausa novel, so as to bring this literature to a larger public. And while I am excited that, as Blaft notes

It’s also, we believe, the first time a translation of an African-language work has ever been published first in India. We like the idea of South-South literary exchange, and we wish this sort of thing would happen more often.

I hope that some of Nigeria’s publishers will take up the challenge to create their own translation imprints.

In the meantime, a big congratulations to Hajiya Balaraba. Here’s hoping that the rest of her novels will be translated soon! Stay tuned for a longer review of

Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu. (c) Sunmi Smart-Cole

the novel itself.

For more articles and information on Hausa soyayya literature, see these links:

Interview with novelist Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu.

Interview with the first female novelist to publish a novel in Hausa, Hafsat Ahmed Abdulwahid.

Interview with novelist Bilkisu Funtua.

Interview with novelist Sa’adatu Baba Ahmed.

Hausa Popular Literature database at School of Oriental and African Studies

“Hausa Literary Movement and the 21st Century” by Yusuf Adamu

“Between the Word and the Screen: a hisorical perspective on the Hausa literary movement and the home video invasion” by Yusuf Adamu

“Hausa popular literature and the video film: the rapid rise of cultural production in times of economic decline” by Graham Furniss

“Loud Bubbles from a Silent Brook: Trends and Tendencies in Contemporary Hausa Prose Writing” by Abdalla Uba Adamu

“Islamic Hausa Feminism Meets Northern Nigerian Romance: the Cautious Rebellion of Bilkisu Funtuwa” by Novian Whitsitt

“Parallel Worlds: Reflective Womanism in Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Ina Son Sa Haka” by Abdalla Uba Adamu

Hausa Writers Database (in Hausa)

My blog post on a (mostly Hausa) writers conference in Niger

The Caine Prize, the “Tragic Continent”, and the Politics of the “Happy African Story”

Behind as usual in posting on this blog, I’m going to jump back in (with minimal apologies about my absence and the usual promises to catch up) with my most recent article, published today, “The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story.” Here, I engage with British novelist, and the 2012 chair of judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing, Bernadine Evaristo’s  ideas expressed, in an essay on the Caine Prize blog, on what a new African literature should look like. (If you don’t want to read my long, half memoir, half academic preface to the article, just skip down to the photo to read my article and other responses to Evaristo’s article by other Nigerian writers.)

A Preface:

Some of the issues I brought up in the piece have been haunting me for years, as I have struggled with my identity as a white American who moved as a child to Nigeria with my parents and have since occupied the privileged position of the global wanderer. As an undergraduate, I wrote a creative senior thesis of collected  poems,  which I introduced with an essay, “Writing Home.” I wrote that  I had  become “a member of a certain community of writers,” perhaps best expressed  by expatriate Indian writer Salman Rushdie in his essay“Imaginary Homelands”:

It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge–which gives rise to profound uncertainties–that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. . . . (Imaginary Homelands 10)

At age 21, on the cusp of my adult life, I was relieved by the idea of not having to choose a place to be rooted. I found home in the metaphoric space of the trans-Atlantic flight, writing,

Perhaps more than any other place, I have felt at home on airplanes.  There, I do not have to claim one piece of soil but rather every place we fly over. Sometimes, at night, I wake up and crave being on an airplane, any airplane, but specifically a transatlantic one: the familiar feel of take off, being pressed into the cushions, my suddenly sleepy eyes seeing through an oval pane of plastic the land stretched out beneath me. The rain forest of Lagos, the desert of Kano, the lights of New York or Atlanta, the misty clouds of London or Amsterdam slowly drop away and look like maps, or aerial photographs. I love to fly through the clouds, which make odd airy sculptures, or at night to press my cheek against the cold window and with a blanket over my head gaze up at the stars: constellations which can be seen from three different continents. Orion, I can see in America, England, and Nigeria. But somehow from a plane, the patterns are even more brilliant, closer, larger, and almost tangible through the frosty pane.

As I grow older and as I pour much of my focus into the study of Hausa literature and film, which is often neglected in studies of Nigerian literature (often focused on English-language literature), I have become more troubled about issues of privilege and my own problematic position, as one who, by virtue of my American passport, has access to world travel and research grants and privileged treatment in Nigeria that most Nigerians do not have. My lifestyle, in a way, is made possible by the immobility of others. I now deconstruct my earlier romantic notions of being able to claim “every place we fly over.” Now, when I read Simon Kuper’s essay “Take the plunge and emigrate,” which argues from a similar unrooted position, my reaction is less celebratory.  I ask–as the youth of the West roam free, what does this mean for the places and the people where they decide to settle?

As I work on my PhD dissertation, I mull over Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s often misunderstood essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” and the various ways she has revisited the topic since her first presentation of it in 1983.  In a 2010 response to other scholars’ engagement with the question, she clarified that her “point was not to say that they couldn’t speak, but that, when someone did try to do something different, it could not be acknowledged because there was no institutional validation” (2010: 228).   In thinking about the field of postcolonial studies, in which I locate my own research, I have become increasingly concerned by the full-scale celebration of cosmopolitanism, hybridity, migration, and diaspora so prevalent in the field, the happily ambivalent identity of “in between” that I reveled in as I wrote my senior thesis.

It’s not that I don’t think the concepts are useful. They are–on many levels. And, of course, postcolonial scholars theorize them in much more sophisticated ways than I did as an undergraduate attempting to claim a hybrid identity. But I have become more concerned about the ways that these theories of hybridity, et al. sometimes gloss over class issues and privilege the experience of the “diaspora” intellectual over the experience of the so-called “subaltern” left at home. The problem is one of framing, that the voices most often heard by a global media and global academia are those situated in the cosmopolitan centres of the West.

Spivak is useful in helping think through these issues. On the one hand, as a postcolonial intellectual situated in a powerful American ivy league university and often counted as one of the Big Three postcolonial theorists (Spivak, Said, and Bhaba), she is also complicit in this privileging of expatriate voices. Indian intellectuals, Rahsmi Bhatnager, Lola Chatterjee, and Rajeshwari Sunder Rajen based at Jawaharlal Nehru University, point out, in a 1987 interview,  “Perhaps the relationship of distance and proximity between you and us is that what we write and teach has political and other actual consequences for us that are in a sense different from the consequences or lack of consequences for you.” I would also argue that the abstruse language which Spivak chooses to make her arguments, which could otherwise be quite politically powerful, limit their discussion mainly to other academics.

On the other hand, she constantly questions her own positions and ideas, in a way that any scholar or writer who has privileged access to travel and funding, must do. While bemoaning the institutions which are often deaf to the voice of the subaltern, she has also become personally involved in learning from those she defines as “subaltern” and thinking through ways in which they can be empowered through education. 

Much theory, I’m beginning to understand, is dependent on positioning and audience.While living in the U.S. and teaching introductory African studies to American students, I was (and still am) quite sensitive about negative portrayals of Africa–the barrage of images of flies and dirt and poverty and ads from charities that always featured tears trembling in the eyes or the snot running out of the nose of some ragged African child. I would open my classes by having students read Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa,” then juxtaposing that with a few Naija music videos. If I find myself teaching in America again, I may pair Wainaina’s essay with Teju Cole’s “The White Savior Industrial Complex.”

When, last month, I reviewed Abidemi Sanusi’s gut-wrenching novel Eyo, that was nominated for a Commonwealth Prize in 2010, I felt the tension between being a postcolonial critic whose institution is located in the United States and being a resident of Nigeria, where I become ever conscious of the many abuses that Nigerians constantly talk about. On the one hand as I read Eyo, I thought, hey, Nigerians look really bad in this book. On the other hand, I thought–Sanusi is exposing the horrific underworld of human trafficking and manages to humanize every character in it–a striking accomplishment. (Read my review here.)

My reaction to Evaristo’s statements, then, came out of all of this mulling about ideas of privilege, positioning and audience, as well as from some mind-stretching conversations with writer friends who live here in Nigeria.  [UPDATE 13 May 2012: Let me just further clarify, that I think that writers in Africa or anywhere else in the world should write whatever they like in whatever style and whatever language that they like. My main point in the essay below is basically combating what seems to me to be a certain amount of prescriptiveness in telling African writers (especially those living on the continent) "how to write about Africa." Telling writers not to write about suffering just follows up on older instruction to writers to write about the nation or to write about politics.  South African writer Njabulo Ndebele, in Rediscovery of the Ordinary, similarly protests the imperative of the "spectacular" in South African writing, arguing for more representation of the daily struggles of ordinary people to try to make their lives as normal as possible--which he calls an "active social consciousness." I am not trying to defend those writers who cynically exploit suffering in order to become popular with non-African readers--it does happen--I've read it--and I'm not a fan. I dislike sensationalism and pandering to a Western audience as much as the next critic, and I agree with Ndebele (and with Evaristo if this is what she was saying) that there should be more focus on ordinary life. My main point is that I think we must be careful about saying that writing that depicts suffering is necessarily "pandering." Ndebele points out that the spectacular writing that grew up in South Africa was in response to the almost surreal conditions people found themselves in. To say that writing that reacts to one's environment is meant for Western audiences falls into the same trap that Graham Huggan falls into in his book The Post-colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins.  Huggan  implicates the field of postcolonial literary production and publishing as well as the academic field of postcolonial studies in capitalist structures of selling exoticism. Yet, in his rush to denounce the Western reader of “exotic” postcolonial literature, he only briefly acknowledges in a few caveats that that the readers “by no means form a homogenous or readily identifiable consumer group” (30), almost completely glossing over the reader of postcolonial literature in formerly colonized locations. Stating that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart “implicitly address[es] a Western model reader who is constructed as an outsider to the text and to the cultural environment(s) it represents” (2000, 46), he seems to have completely missed Achebe’s defense that “African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecs, with an eye on the main chance outside their countries” but are indeed writing for heterogenous peoples of different languages and cultures that make up “the new nation-states of Africa” (1965, 344). In this article, then, I try to point out that to focus so obsessively on the reaction of a Western audience, when many writers are writing out of their own experiences that include love and laughter and tenderness in addition to moments of suffering and are usually thinking of readers closer to home, is to put almost impossible strictures on the writer. Let the writer write what she wants.  If that happens to be science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, crime fiction (and I’m a HUGE fan of Nazir Adam Salih’s fantasy and crime fiction written in Hausa, in addition to the more scathing and sensational social critique of writers like Balaraba Ramat Yakubu ),  great. If that happens to be more straightforward realistic narrative based out of the writer’s own experiences, this too is important writing.

To read my original article as it was published, click on the photo below to be taken to a readable version. Otherwise, scroll below the photo, to read the article with references hyperlinked. Following the article, I have copied a few of the responses I got on facebook from writer/artist friends when I asked for reactions to Evaristo’s essay. (Responses reproduced by permission of authors)

[UPDATE 3 July 2012: I'm honoured that this blog post was mentioned in Stephen Derwent Partington's East African article "More Responsibilities than bonuses for the African Writer," in which he summarizes what I was trying to say much better than I did, myself. A former professor of mine, Peter Kerry Powers also engaged with my article on his own blog. ]

The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story

Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 12 May 2012 05:00

 On 23 April 2012, the chair of judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing, British-Nigerian writer Bernadine Evaristo wrote a blog post about selecting the soon to be released short-list: “I’m looking for stories about Africa that enlarge our concept of the continent beyond the familiar images that dominate the media: War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent. [… W]hile we are all aware of these negative realities, and some African writers have written great novels along these lines (as was necessary, crucial), isn’t it time now to move on?” Her critique of “stereotypical” African stories is similar to those made by other African writers, such as Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in “How To Write About Africa” and Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole in “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” Her opinion piece also invokes previous critiques of the Caine prize. Last year columnist Ikhide R. Ikheloa wrote, “Aided by some needy ‘African’ writers, Africa is being portrayed as an issues-laden continent that is best viewed on a fly-infested canvas.”

I share these concerns about dehumanizing images of Africa. When living and teaching in the U.S., I tried to “enlarge” my American students “concept of the continent” by emphasizing exciting current trends in African fashion, music, and movies, as well as the daily lives of ordinary people. My aim was much like that of Samantha Pinto, one of the other Caine Prize judges who blogged this week: “I hope as a teacher that my students learn to carry some of these beautifully crafted stories into a much larger conversation about Africa than the one that exists in mainstream American media.” My own scholarly interest in Hausa popular literature and film began precisely because I was enchanted by the love stories and tales of everyday life consumed by popular audiences but largely ignored by African literary scholarship preoccupied with grand narratives of the nation.

However, I admit that as I read Evaristo’s comments, I felt a tension between her impatient charge to “move on” past representations of suffering, and the context of currently living in northern Nigeria, where people leave their homes daily knowing that they could be blown up or shot at by unknown gunmen. Only two weeks ago in Kano, an attack on churches that met on Bayero University’s old campus killed dozens of university students and professors, the very cosmopolitan middle class often celebrated by writers abroad, and more bombs were found planted around campus. Suffering is not limited to bombs, as I was reminded when recently attending a church in Jos. Pointing to a dramatic decrease in tithes and offerings as evidence of hard times, an elder sought prayer for those who lost their livelihoods in the Plateau State’s demolition campaign of “illegal structures” and would lose more in the recently-announced motorcycle ban.

Kaduna-based writer Elnathan John, in a conversation with other African writers on Facebook (quoted by permission), wrote that writers should be more concerned with the quality of the writing than in dictating to other writers the correct topics to write about.  “When I am told to tell a happy African story,” He said, “I ask, why? Where I live, EVERYTHING is driven by fear of conflict, bomb blasts, and daylight assassinations unreported by the media. Every kilometer of road has a checkpoint like those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I am a writer writing my realities. […]Our problems in Africa will not disappear when we stop writing about them.”

While not every place in Nigeria is bomb-torn and certainly not every story from as big and complex a continent as Africa must reflect such tragedies, a predicament remains that Kano-based writer Abdulaziz A. Abdulaziz identified in a Facebook conversation with me. While agreeing with Evaristo on the need to move past stereotypes, he wrote, “There is a dilemma here; what do Africans have to export again. For me, African contemporary artists have no better theme than corruption and bad governance as the main issues dominant in our everyday life[…]”

Elnathan John continued, “A lot of the Happy Africa story activists live outside the continent. Not that I begrudge them anything, but it is easier to dictate to people living a reality when you don’t know or live that reality. […] Every Sunday morning (in many Northern States), we expect a bomb or a shooting spree. People who live in Maiduguri even have it worse. Their entire lives are ruled by violence and chaos. Nigerians, like Zimbabweans (and many other African countries suffering decay and violence) do not have the luxury of Always writing about beach house romances. Our problems are too real, too present, too big to be wiped out from our stories.”

Thus, while we can all identify with Evaristo’s frustrations in how Africa is misread by the West, her first flawed assumption seems to be that African writers who write tragic settings are not writing of their own experiences but rather pandering to a Western audience that expects to hear about tragedy. To say we must “move on” past stories of hardship suggests to those who are suffering that their stories don’t matter—that such stories are no longer fashionable. Writers who live amidst suffering are in the unfortunate position of inhabiting an inconvenient stereotype. They are silenced by threats of terrorists inside the country and by the disapproval of cosmopolitan sophisticates outside.

Such literary prescription begins to feel like Dora Akunyili’s erstwhile rebranding campaign—a luxury of those who do not want to be embarrassed while abroad, which does little to solve the problems on the ground. Although Evaristo asks, “are too many African writers writing for the approval of non-African readerships”?, her admonition to avoid stories of suffering seems to be just as implicated in seeking the approval of  those “big, international markets in Europe and America”. Directly after she asks “to what extent does published African fiction pander to received notions about the continent, and at what cost?” , she argues, “For African fiction to remain more than a passing fad on the world stage, it needs to diversify more than it does at present. What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit?”

Now, I love science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction et al, and know of African writers, including Evaristo, who are doing exciting things with these genres, especially in African languages, but Evaristo’s focus on the “world stage” reveals her second problematic assumption—that the most important readers of African literature reside outside of Africa. It is a reminder that though the Caine prize is awarded to “African writing”, it is still based in London.

Last week, overwhelmed by the attacks on Bayero University, I printed reader responses to  an earlier article on film rather than writing about the tragedy. Afterwards, one of my readers chastised me for writing about film rather than about what the “army are doing to our people.” While, like Evaristo, I defend my right to talk about a diversity of subjects, the comment reminded me that there is a large reading public here in Nigeria looking for writing that is relevant to their lives. It also made me think of my dear friend, Hausa novelist, Sa’adatu Baba Ahmad’s refrain that for her “literature is a mirror to society.” That every conversation these days seems to return to bombs and shootings does not mean that people do not laugh or joke or gossip or dream or love.  Indeed, I believe that the best writing captures the humour, the humanity, and the gossip alongside the backdrop of suffering.

So, by all means let us, as Evaristo appeals, have new genres, new styles, that are “as  diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations” Let us have “thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.” But let us also be true, let us be relevant. And let us not, in pursuit of a global recognition, erase the voices of ordinary people, who so often bear up under immense suffering with grace and humour. For it is these stories of survival that give us the most direction in how to navigate an increasingly terrifying world.

Fin

While writing the article, I asked my friends on Facebook what they thought of Evaristo’s article. Some of them responded after I had already turned in the article, so I asked their permission to republish their comments here. See them copied below. [Update 13 May 2012: The quotes in the above article from Elnathan John, who writes a popular satirical column for Daily Times and short stories on a wide variety of themes, including facebook and middle class love in Nigeria as well as darker issues based on current events, came from comments on another writer's page. They were part of a larger discussion in which he was expressing frustration at writers telling other writers what to write. He was insisting, like other writers I've seen in conversation, that he should have the freedom to write about whatever he likes, and that themes and topics in writing will change over time in response to what is relevant.  Following his statement that "Our problems are too real, too present, too big to be wiped out from our stories," he says, "In the end, like you say: 'Just tell me whether my work is good or bad. That conversation, I am very happy to have.'"]

Kano-based writer Abdulaziz A. Abdulaziz reacted positively to Evaristo’s essay, but still noted the tension between writing stereotypes and writing about ongoing problems:

I agree with Evaristo. It is indeed time to move on. For example, isnt it shameful that in 2012, a story about second World War is making the list? I think African writers have rendered so many themes to cliches. Why, for example, should we still be reading novels about Biafra or the mau mau guerilla war in Kenya? On another pedestal, it is indeed ironic that Africans complain about stereotypical depiction of a grotesque Africa by non-African writers, the same African writers are not doing any better. It is just like feminists lambasting gory representation of women yet they go about writing about naive women and prostitutes! Even the classical Achebe, according to some acidic critics, did no better than Conrad regarding the image of Africa. However, there is a dilemma here; what do Africans have to export again? For me African contemporary artist has no better theme than corruption and bad governance, as the main issues dorminant on our everyday life especially since we all fed from Achebe, Armah, Ngugi and Ousmane who instructed us to responsive to the society.

May 8 at 12:57pm ·

I responded to Abdulaziz:

Hi Abdulaziz, just to jump in here a bit (before hitting the road to a conference and then hopefully checking again later tonight). I liked Evaristo’s call for new themes and genres–I’d love to see more African science fiction etc–, but I was troubled by what felt like a prescription to “move on” past depictions of suffering, when as you note that there is corruption, bad governance, and currently bombs etc going off around us. If one writes what one knows than it seems to me that it would be difficult and even escapist NOT to write about some of these things. (That said, one can metaphorically write about things in non-cliched ways in new genres etc) It felt to me that in her appeal to move past “stereotypes” about Africa, she was still appealing to African writers to please or “teach” a Western audience rather than responding to the preoccupations of one’s own society. As for writing about Biafra or WWII etc, I don’t really have a problem with that because I think these topics actually have not been explored enough. I’ve never actually read African fiction about the experience of African WWII soldiers, so I actually thought that story was refreshing and new.

Ukamaka Olisakwe, whose novel On the Eyes of a goddess was recently released, responded passionately:
Have we moved on, or have we only moved onto a new level of ignorance and stupidity?Should I write about a beautiful Africa? Should I distort the truth just so to satisfy some school of thought that frown at the continuous dent on the ‘inglorious’ African image.Last time I listened in on the conversation of intellectuals. They were thoroughly fed up with stories of suffering Africa; of child soldiers, abused women and children, of wars and corruption. African writers should move on, should tell flurry stories: chicklit, thrillers, comedy, commercial fiction, etc etc, they said. I agree, some stories have been told over and over again, like a clothe washed for too long, until it began splitting at the seams. Yes, I do not want to read anymore of Biafra stories- that have been well documented. Instead I wish to learn new details about that war from the Nigerian side. I want to read a biography of Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu. I want to know how he felt years after he made that declaration. Did he feel regret or fulfillment? I want to learn new details, information, that hadn’t been brought under the sun.But should we, writers, move on and desist from telling it as it is. A new war is on in Nigeria, a kind that could gradually wipe the fragments that we are. Should writers ignore this salient moment, or begin to please those who think they know better?I refuse to be conned into that, because at the end of the day, you end up just satisfying those sect, and also, definitely, writing another single story of Africa. I say, write about Africa the way she is, the way you see her: beautiful, sad, hungry, raped, beaten, classy, sexy, girlie, scholastic! Be eclectic dammit! But do not tell lies and do not leave out important details that matter. I can’t wrap my suffering and malnourished mother in colourful wrappers, adorn her neck with heavy, priceless gems, so that outsiders would marvel at her supposed beauty, but only to strip her at home and let her to more suffering and wretchedness. That would be a sham, a badly written fiction. Each day we are slapped with our gory reality. We – or rather – I, will not write what I don’t see. Writers are torch-bearers, those who would document each moment in history for posterity. We need change, and to attain that position, we must keep screaming until our cries pierce the deafest of ears. We have the worst leaders in the third worlds – those that are so blind and misguided we are bereft of words, adjectives, to qualify the alarming shame. We just weep. They roam about their sand castles, kings that they are, ruining the lives of many, and I’m supposed to turn a blind eye? Funny.I refuse to lie about her(Africa) state. I will write about her the way I see her. If you see her differently, then write her that way.

Abdulaziz responded:
Way to go Uka. What a spirited response. I concur. No to a Potemskin village: a beautiful facade to an ugly house.

And finally, after I posted the article copied above, writer and visual artist Temidayo Odutokun responded:
I shared the link and posted that ” We cannot write or make art of what we do not experience, but when we choose subject matter, let us have them reflect the unpleasant things as well as the joys of our society buried in layers of the rubble that we see piling on everyday.” [...] For even when we make imaginative art or fiction, materials are gotten from experiences we have had or heard of or seen happen to other people or a combination of all these. However while we tell of the general hardship that is the dominant issue in our society we could put in same weave, the little joys and pleasantness that punctuate our struggling through, daily; The things that help us catch our breath; The things that cushion the heartache that comes from reading of these things or seeing them in other forms of art like visual or performing, for those too are part of the reality.

A mixed-up people: When Wainaina writes about Africa

I wrote the following in early February after my parents returned from a trip to the U.S. and brought with them Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place I had ordered for my friend Daily Times columnist and author  Elnathan John:

 

Before I send it off to Elnathan, I crack it open curiously, read a chapter before I go to bed. The next morning I wake up and open it again. I read greedily. The way I used to when I was in high school with my science fiction and fantasy. The way I read when I would neglect my homework, come home with a novel, which I would finish before I would start my homework late at night, working on my bed far into the night with a candle. I would fall asleep, my head inches from the candle balanced on a plate, sometimes not yet done with the algebra, which I would try to hurriedly finish in shaky pencil in the car on the way to school the next morning.

 

Those days, I poured the stories into me. Every day a new novel. Greedily. In grad school, I began to read more slowly, pencil in hand. I read theory and criticism, and long academic papers that I printed from the Internet. It was no longer a joy to read. I stopped reading. I became addicted to the Internet. In grad school when trying to finish my MA thesis, I started a blog. It was such a relief to have that outlet–to write my thoughts effortlessly in that forum when I was so stuck with academic writing. Then Facebook came along, and I became doubly addicted—to the inane games, the well-turned status update, the latest news–link upon link upon link.

 

I am two days late on an academic paper deadline, and yet I am sitting here in an office chair in my parent’s spare room, sitting at the desk in front of my computer, reading shamelessly–even when my mother comes in, the computer screen dead–reading Wainaina like a science fiction novel. It is not what I am supposed to be doing. It is not work. It is pleasure. Wainaina’s musings awaken in me memories of my own life, of the daydreams at fifteen, when I would stare dreamily out the windows of our van at the misty mountains of the green plateau in rainy season and imagine fantasy novels about a shepherdess name Merrony tending flocks on a long sunflower strewn Plateau. It was to be a trilogy. I can still remember the story now, as if it were a novel I had read long ago, a novel that will always remain in that “to-be-written” stage. My preoccupations have moved past Merrony, but Wainaina makes me want to write again in that way.

 

When I planned to write a review of Wainaina’s memoir for my column, I thought at first maybe I’d write something stream of consciousness. What I’ve copied above was the beginning of my brainstorm. But it felt too self-indulgent for the Weekly Trust. I let it be a blog post. Instead, I decided to focus on the parts of the memoir that seemed the most strikingly relevant to Nigeria right now. I can’t find the hard copy of the article, but if you scroll down below or click on this link, you can read what I wrote.

 

A mixed-up people: When Wainaina writes about Africa

 

Written by Carmen McCain, Saturday, 11 February 2012 05:00

 

 

This past week, I procrastinated revisions on an academic article to greedily devour Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place. Wainaina won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 for his short story “Discovering Home” and is perhaps best known for his satirical essay “How to Write about Africa” published in Granta in 2005, a piece that skewers stereotypical ways in which non-Africans write about the continent. In a later reflection on the essay, Wainaina reveals that it “grew out of an email” written “in a fit of anger, responding to Granta’s “‘Africa’ issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known.” When Granta later published an edited version of the email, he wryly remarks: “I went viral; I became spam. […] Now I am ‘that guy,’ the conscience of Africa.”

 

As my own familiarity with Wainaina’s writing was limited to

Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga Wainaina (Photo credit: Internaz)

having read a couple of his sardonic essays and interviews, I admit that the lilting dreaminess, even sweetness, of his memoir came as a surprise. If “How to Write About Africa” bitingly mocks how foreign reporters or celebrity activists write about Africa as if Africans had “no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks” then Wainaina’s memoir explores the depths and quirks through the remembered details of his own life.

 

Wainaina writes in an impressionistic present tense: the haze of childhood, an early obsession with words, his mother’s patient love. He changes schools, goes to South Africa for university, holes himself up in a room, drinking, reading, partying, never finishing school. He takes a trip to Uganda for a family reunion, out of which comes his first publication in a South African newspaper. A turn in the narrative comes when he submits the hastily revised piece, re-published as a short story in an e-journal, to the Caine prize. Although they initially respond that they do not accept electronically published material,  one day he receives another “email from the bloody colonizers” inviting him “to come to England, and have dinner in the House of Lords, and do readings, and go to the Bodleian Library for a dinner of many courses, with wine, and all of London’s literati.”

 

Following his Caine prize win, the memoir becomes more travelogue of the African countries he visits on writing business, impressions of Lagos, Lome, Accra; Kenyan election violence; African news browsed for on the internet, the writing life in America’s cold winter, where he is now director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College. What struck me most in this sprawling account of family and personal history was the reoccurring motif of the ambiguity of borders, the way people change personalities as they switch languages, the shifting identities of ethnicity and naming that languages bring, how they include and exclude.

 

Wainaina grew up in Nairobi, son of a Ugandan Bufumbira mother and a Kenyan Gikuyu father, speaking Swahili and English. Following Gikuyu tradition, he, as second son, was named after his maternal Ugandan grandfather, Binyavanga, a Bufumbira nickname that means “mixed up”. His name becomes an appropriate lens through which to read his memoir.

 

Lessons about the way language and ethnicity exclude come early. One of his earliest childhood memories is of a quarrelsome woman who insults his mother because she is Ugandan. As a teenager while Kalenjin Daniel Arap Moi is in power, Binyavanga and his sister are among the top twenty students in their province, yet neither of them is called to any secondary school, “Rumors are spreading everywhere. We hear that [...] names are matched to numbers, and scrutinized, word by word, line by scientific line, for Gikuyu names in the secret office by Special Branch people.” Discriminated against because of his father’s Gikuyu name, when a Gikuyu becomes president, “for the first time in my life, to be Gikuyu is a public event. […] The rest of Kenya has become Tribes. There is a text message being sent to Gikuyus calling Luos and people from western Kenya ‘beasts from the west.’” The Ugandan origin of his first name becomes confusing for those who want to pigeon hole him into one of “us” or “them.” He describes an airline hostess who insists on knowing where his first name came from before she lets him pass. “One person stops me on a street to tell me how happy he was to see me in the newspaper—but that name of yours, my friends are asking, you are half what?”

 

And yet, Wainaina points out, these political uses of language and ethnicity are often colonial constructs. He frequently returns to a history of diverse kinship, rich old stories about the kingdom of Buganda, the Swahili culture the Arab explorer Ibn Batuta encountered centuries ago. “We are a mixed-up people,” he writes, describing how his Ugandan grandmother was originally from the Congo, his mother’s sister went into hiding in Rwanda, other family members settled in South Africa and America. In the two days of a reunion in Uganda, “we feel like a family. In French, Swahili, English, Gikuyu, Kinyarwanda, Kiganda, and Ndebele, we sing one song, a multitude of passports in our luggage.”

 

Of his nanny Wambui, he writes, “Her aunt is half Nandi, her grandmother an Ngong Maasai. Wambui is Gikuyu by fear, or Kenyatta-issued title deed, or school registration or because her maternal Gikuyu uncle paid her father’s fees, or because they chose a Gikuyu name to get into a cooperative scheme in the seventies. […]She could have become a Luo, if they stayed there long enough, and she married there; she is dark skinned enough to get away with it.”

 

Though Wainaina’s memoir is written in English, he invokes his compatriot Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the great champion of writing in African languages, in a celebration of how multiple languages, though sometimes abused politically, are one of the riches of Kenya’s national character: English for official business, “brotherhood” in Swahili, more intimacy in mother tongues. “All city people inhabit several worlds in many languages. […Some] speak six or seven languages.”

 

Personalities change from language to language. A Maasai girl he meets is shy and awkward in English, but in Swahili and the street language of Sheng, “she pours herself into another person, talkative, aggressive. A person who must have a Tupac T-shirt stashed away somewhere.” On a bus, he watches a conductor whose “body language, his expressions, his character even, change from language to language—he is a brash town guy, a Gikuyu matatu guy, in Gikuyu, and even in Kiswahili. When he speaks Kalenjin, his face is gentler, more humorous, ironic rather than sarcastic, conservative, shy eyes.”

 

In his travels around Africa, Wainaina’s observes, along with delightful new quirks of national character, similar discrimination over language, class and ethnicity. Towards the end of the book, he writes in a fog of horror about the Kenyan election violence of 2007-2008.

 

Yet the mixed-up nature of his own family background points to relationships of familiarity possible all over the continent. When, a kind South African friend hires Wainaina, at his most destitute, as a marketer, he remembers in a rush of warmth other acts of compassion: how another South African friend  “offered to let me stay rent free in her house” and how her “father, a physics professor […] left South Africa in the fifties unable to get a job in Verwoerd South Africa [… but] was adopted in Nigeria where they lived for many years, […teaching]  a generation of Nigerian physicists at Ibadan.” “This is how to become an African,” he writes.

 

The “place” Wainaina writes about is both his mother’s hometown and the continent he travels: His family history is one of blood and one of adoption by friends throughout Africa. This is how to write about Africa, he implies. This is how to write about this place.

 

“Cross of crescents: Muslims around the Church” a guest column by Gimba Kakanda

Gimba Kakanda during the Fuel Subsidy Protests (used by permission of Gimba Kakanda)

Gimba Kakanda during the Fuel Subsidy Protests (used by permission of Gimba Kakanda)

On 14 January 2012, the poet Gimba Kakanda, one of the brains behind the active “Nation-wide Anti-Fuel Subsidy Removal” group on Facebook, wrote a guest article for my Weekly Trust column about his experiences organizing a group of Muslim youth in Minna to protect a church the Sunday before: “Cross of Crescents: Muslims around a Church”. To read his thoughtful and provocative piece, click on the link, click on the photo below, or scroll down to read here on my blog.

Cross of crescents: Muslims around the Church

 Written by Carmen McCain and Gimba Kakanda, Saturday, 14 January 2012

 Last weekend, the stories of the killings of Christians in Adamawa and Gombe left me with a constant dull ache. I realized, as boys hovered their metal detectors over my Bible before I walked into church, that we could die as we prayed. And though the pastor pointed us to the revolutionary nonviolent teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5, Christians I spoke to were angry.

“It’s just lies,” one told me, when I argued that most Muslims were aghast at the killings. I couldn’t blame him for his anger—he had just lost a friend in Adamawa—but I wished that he could experience the kindness of my Muslim friends and realize they too love and hurt and breathe. It was in this funk that I signed online and saw the photos, like those in Egypt last year, of Christians protesters in Kano and Kaduna protecting their Muslim friends while they prayed.

Poet Gimba Kakanda, whose collection of poetry Safari Pants was published by Kraftgriot in 2010,  wrote on Facebook that he and other Muslim friends had protected St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Minna during a Sunday service. Beginning to feel hopeful again, I asked Gimba if he would write something about his experiences. I yield the rest of my column to him.  –Carmen

When I heard of the covenant made in Kano during the anti-fuel subsidy removal protests–of Christians willing to stand guard for Muslims and vice versa during religious services–I was hurt that the bond of our relationship has waned over the years to the point that a Muslim is considered an enemy of Christianity, an inhumane being adept in violence.

I didn’t grow up in a tense religious atmosphere. My upbringing wasn’t bound to intolerance. The Muslims and Christians of my early days seemed like adherents of the same religion. We had so much regard for each other that we marked religious festivals together, irrespective of whose it was. As a child, Muslims marking Christmas was a popular practice. Mothers would obtain Christmas dress for their children who would join Christians at parks or any available amusing exercise. We referred to Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter, in my mother-tongue, as Christians’ Eid-el Kabir and Eid-el Fitr.

This Boko Haram debacle causes me so much pain; it causes my faith to be branded as an enemy of Christianity. For a long time now, I’ve been thinking over the best way to restore the dwindling trust between the faiths.

It was my return to Jos sometime in September last year that made me realize the horrible extent of our religious divide. It was in the month of Ramadan. I hate travelling while fasting, and to save myself the hassle of scouting for food on my arrival, I called my host on the phone and asked him to get some food ready for my fast. He was Christian. When I got into the neighborhood, I was unaware that the quarter was a ‘death zone’ for non-Christians. Chollom didn’t tell me. I only realised the danger when I stepped out to locate a mosque. The one I knew was no longer there – it might have been the burnt edifice I saw in its place. At once, I waved down an okada rider and asked him to take me to the bordering quarter, Nassarawa Gwong! He sized me up with wonder, shrugged and zoomed away. I had no clue. I stopped another. This rider smiled as one would at a known teaser. “I no dey go there o!” He blurted, without offering a reason. I made it to the border on foot, wondering as people poured to the street to watch me amble into the other ‘death zone’!

I was unhappy with Chollom, but he said that he could never come to terms with the idea of not hosting me. That incident made me began to think about ways to solve such religious segregation. I discussed this with the poet Richard Ali when we met on that visit to Jos, offering what I considered a solution. Richard and I agreed on soon setting up an NGO aimed at fostering unity between people of divergent ethnic and religious differences.

On the eve of my birthday this year, a Saturday, I was chatting with a Muslim friend, when I suggested that a way to end these growing attacks on places of worship might be a community security set-up where Muslims stand guard for Christians during church services and Christians for Muslims during Jummu’at prayers. He bought that. So I called a relative, Ahmad Ibrahim Gimba, and informed him about the plan. He too bought it, and immediately arranged with a friend of his to inform their priest of our mission.

As early as 6 am on Sunday the 8th of January, my birthday, I was already up for the day’s task. I live in Tunga but the church, Saint Mary’s Catholic Church at Kpakungu, one of the largest churches in Minna, is familiar to me. Ahmad Ibrahim and I got there and were soon joined by our other friends who were very keen on the mission. Our Christian friend who worships in the church took us to the security guard to explain our mission. Before the 7:30 am service commenced we were already spread round the church: Awaal Gata, Shuaibu Usman, Dantani Usman, Danjuma Mohammed, Idris Lade, Mohammed Saba, Kabiru Mohammed, Aminu Umar… We were eighteen in all!

After the service, there were some hitches. Policemen came around to know why Muslims would offer to guard a church. Even though we informed them that Ahmad had spoken to a member of the church and arranged that we would be coming, they were leery. The trouble with such system, I learnt a day later from a member of the church, Dominic Eigbegbea, is trust. Dominic is the president of the Catholic Youth Organisation of Nigeria (CYON), Minna Diocese. He was blunt, confiding in me that Christians don’t trust Muslims anymore, that whatever bound them together is handled with suspicion. He said that he discussed our arrangement with the other members of the church, and they cautioned that we shouldn’t be trusted, that we just want to infiltrate them, study everything about them and, when they are put at ease by our dubious gesture, launch an attack. Every Muslim is a terrorist, I gathered from their response.

The priest of the church, Reverend Father Emmanuel Jima, was philosophical about the development. He’s from Adamawa, a northerner(!) and was born to a Muslim family, he told me. We discussed the unfortunate happenings in the country, especially the insecurity situations aggravated by the dreaded Boko Haram militancy. The cleric lambasted the old generation for the present mess in the country. He talked softly but he was obviously unhappy that the bond between the two faiths has weakened to this extent, considering any forum that avails both Muslims and Christians a chance to rub each other’s back a way to restore the lost paradise of inter-faith fraternity. The youths are more perceptive, he iterated. ‘The burden of fixing the country is now left for you, the youth.’

Yes, a burden, this weighs me down. I must carry this cross. Unlike Christ’s, though, my cross is the weight of a faith, the crescent, deconstructed by too many misperceptions, too many stereotypes, unwitting and deliberate. May God save us from us, Ameen.