Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Africa 39: book review

Fables rub shoulders with  realistic stories. Stories with a clear ideological thrust are  juxtaposed with ironic, humorous or hauntingly poetic ones.
Africa 39; new writing from Africa south of the Sahara    Edited by Ellah Watakama Allfrey
Bloomsbury        Rs 450/-                Pp 360

During the last century, the winds of change loosened the shackles of colonial rule over Africa. Soon enough, as the editor of this eminently readable anthology observes, the thrust towards freedom changed direction and character. A few leaders genuinely believed in adopting foreign ideologies for improving and revitalizing their homelands. For them, writers and intellectuals were allies to usher in positive social change. Other postcolonial African leaders saw such social doctrines as weapons for quashing dissent and pressuring citizens into intellectual submission.  
This collection of fresh and established contemporary African voices celebrates the freedom of thought and imagination. These stories explore the myriad facets of African life, daring to probe “the hidden, censored and denied histories of ourselves.”
In Alu, Recaredo Silebo Boturu portrays how western missionaries “who believed themselves to be greater and more intelligent than others… with neither permission nor compassion… plundered the lands of foreign peoples… plucked out their personalities… indoctrinated them so that they abandoned their traditions and their culture.” In a town where people were ashamed to have African names, little Alu’s rare African name stood out perhaps as an act of courage, or as a matter of principle.
Mama’s Future by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is a fable about the fate of African nations. Mama is on her deathbed since nearly a century. A cavalcade of experts have since theorized what exactly was killing her. “Some said poverty. Others, corruption. Another strand blamed her penchant for foreign lovers… She bled what money was left, after her lovers had stolen what they hadn’t been able to dupe her out of.”
Centuries of foreign subjugation followed often by autocratic African rulers, has resulted in ongoing internal strife. The upheavals and uncertainties have taken their toll. Clifton Gachagua’s No Kissing the Dolls explores through intriguing images and metaphors the near-death condition of today’s young African artists, poets and intellectuals, and by extension, of Africa itself. “She is dying and her body is in this experiment of reverse engineering and she is tearing into ribbons of primary colours – wait, wait, are these wings?” After cycles of popular uprisings, wars and social upheavals, “their fathers’ favourite musicians had failed them… Their poetry came down to that important question: would the dead lover ever return?”
Some stories explore the common people’s apathy and lack of understanding about their society and country. In the imaginary world of Shadreck Chikoti’s Azotus, the Kingdom, citizens “had taken their freedom for granted for so long that they no longer felt the need to exercise it or the need to explore why freedom should be exercised… Freedom had become commonplace, and therefore meaningless.”
Linda Musita’s Cinema Demons portrays the fate of young college educated Africans. Derrick is arbitrarily assigned by the Joint Admissions Board to study for a degree in Recreation and Leisure Management, and weighed down by an education loan which he must repay. He becomes the butt of mockery from prospective employers. “What the fuck is that, boy?... What sort of qualifications are these? Such a waste?”… Failing to secure even menial work, Derrick attends a dubious religious meet promising salvation to the faithful. The writer offers a hilarious account of the opium offered to ignorant masses. “Derrick watched the ushers battle the demons all the way to the ‘altar’ and wondered why they were doing it with their eyes open… There were close to fifty evil spirits on the stage. Demons making faces, hugging each other… called on Lucifer to save them. They wrestled the ushers and threw punches at them.” Rejecting such spurious gimmicks, Derrick chooses to take the road and walk ahead.
Africa is a melting pot of diverse cultures.  Africans also migrate to distant lands, resulting in unique experiences of isolation or revealing underlying similarities. Shafinaaz Hassim’s The Pink Oysters is about an innocent young Afghan refugee’s initiation into smuggling blood diamonds and weapons. Despite centuries of strife, remote cultures also offer intellectual gems. Edwige-Renee Dro’s The Professor shows how gems of 19th century French literature can continue to move sensitive souls in modern Ivory Coast. In Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s The Old Man and the Pub, the narrator strives to build a business in distant Geneva. He sees the futility of trying to cash in on his unique ethnicity. “Nobody I met on the streets of the city seemed to be aware of Malawi as a country”. Yet he is surprised by a windfall legacy from an unlikely foreign client.

While the individual pieces are well crafted, their numbers and variety can confuse. Fables rub shoulders with realistic stories. Stories with a clear ideological thrust are juxtaposed with ironic, humorous or hauntingly poetic ones. Chika Unigwe’s novel Soham’s Mulatto, is about a mixed race girl born in 19th Century England. The brief excerpt fails to do justice to the complexity of the subject. These stories offer tantalizing glimpses of the complex and sometimes conflicting realities of Africa and her peoples. It’s a must-read for its insights, and its rich bouquet of literary voices.

This review is published in Sunday Herald

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