Every once in a while, stories come along that surprise critics and readers who claim to know African literature. Jalada’s recent compilation about sex strikes me as that kind of work.
Jalada Africa is a literary collective committed to reshaping the way writing is published and circulated within the continent.
Their recent collection titled Sext Me Poems and Stories proves their open and risk-taking approach to literary projects. I spent the last few days browsing through the collection, floored by how delightfully raw and honest most of the pieces are.
The project is also a small but bold step towards filling a gaping hole in African literary culture. To the annoyance of readers like myself, African authors are not always keen on what their characters do in the bedroom. Under pressure to write about things of world historical importance like colonialism and poverty, African writers have always made short shrift of sex. Sex is perceived as indulgent.
But a projects such as Jalada’s Sext Me Poems and Stories tells us why sex is not superfluous in narrative.
Sex is the true story of the body told from a place of pleasure, pain, and radical uncertainty. Sex is about putting the body in a place where traditional ideas about gender, shame, violence, and loss are interrogated.
Besides, this collection is not just about sex. It’s about how Africans do sex.
Scrolling through the collection is like walking through a sex-toy shop, dazed by the sheer inventiveness put into assembling a world built on pushing the limits of sexual pleasure.
Akati Khasiani’s Coming Down and Aisha Ali’s The First Time are vignettes sketching out a scene of female masturbation. Both stories put the female body up on display, but as something capable of generating the most profound experience of pleasure, entirely on its own.
The language in both pieces is as raw as it is lyrical. Sex in these two stories is not about conquest or consuming bodies but about exploration and discovery. Ali’s character speaks of the vagina as “that small wet place” that the “fingers” go “searching, exploring, looking for answers.” Pretty intense and exciting stuff.
The first of two parts closes off with Orem Ochiel’s Miss Fucking You. Odd, but the title does not prepare you for the obscene goodness of the story. It’s framed as a man asking a woman, pleading more like, to have another go with him. To make his case, he recounts all the impassioned and kinky sexual encounters they’ve had without sparing the dirty details. Every other word in the story is “fuck” or “fucking.” Don’t click on the story while you’re in church!
The Oink in Doinker by Tuelo Gabonewe is a comical tale about a “half-widow,” Haroldette, who encounters a penis cut off from its owner. She takes it in, bathes its, feeds it, and names it Phineas McPhallus. Unlike many of the other stories in the collection, this one is not strictly an erotica. It is something you’d imagine Gogol or Kafka would write. In fact, I couldn’t help noting the striking resemblance between Gabonewe’s story and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Runaway Fingers.
Sext Me by Aleya and Dorothy Kigen’s Inbox (1) are fun at the level of form. Aleya’s piece is entirely a dialogue that takes place via text messaging. A man and a woman set the stage for their sexual encounter by expressing what they imagine the encounter would be like – a textual foreplay as it were. People complain that it’s hard to convey complex emotional states via emails. Not so for Kigen’s character who details her illicit sexual experiences in an email message.
Sext Me Poems and Stories is titillating storytelling. Read the collection here.
Brittle Paper is an African literary blog featuring book reviews, news, interviews, original work and in-depth coverage of the African literary scene. It is curated by Ainehi Edoro and was recently named a ‘go-to book blog’ by Publisher’s Weekly.
Fourteen years ago, Sudanese author Leila Aboulela made history when she won the inaugural edition of the Caine Prize for African Writing.
She’s gone on to publish a short story collection titled Coloured Lights (2001), in addition to two critically acclaimed novels – Minaret(2005) and Lyrics Alley (2011), which won the Scottish Book Awards.
In this exclusive interview, she takes us back to the first Caine Prize ceremony and tells us what it was like inaugurating what would become one of Africa’s most prestigious literary prizes. She also comments on contemporary African fiction and leaves the five authors shortlisted for the 2014 edition of the prize with sound advice.
Can you tell us what the inaugural edition of the Caine Prize was like? What was the general feeling about this new prize breaking into the global literary scene and being hailed as the “African Booker?”
In some ways the inaugural prize was low-keyed; hardly any attention, for example, was paid to the announcement of the short-list. It was only when the short-listed writers arrived in London, for the week’s events culminating in the award dinner at Oxford, that the excitement really started. All the major UK newspapers reported the announcement of the winner and there was coverage from the BBC World Service. With few exceptions, African literature was marginalised in those years, perceived to be of niche or academic interest and not attractive to the general reader. The expectation was that the prize would break through these assumptions in order to widen readership and this was very much welcomed. A few days after the prize dinner in Oxford, we all flew to Harare to take part in the Zimbabwe Book Fair and there was large, official award ceremony and dinner hosted by the Caine Prize.
What was it like arriving in Zimbabwe to participate in this brand new initiative for African writing?
It was hugely exciting. My husband and daughter came with me and she actually turned two the day after our arrival. Harare reminded me of Khartoum and I enjoyed my time there. The first person I met in the lobby of the Monomotapa Hotel as we were checking in, was Yvonne Vera. She had edited Open Spaces, the anthology which contained my winning story, and she was warm and encouraging. She gave me excellent advice which I still hang on to today. She said, “As a writer, you lead and your readers will follow.” There was a lot of excitement at the book fair about the new prize and it was especially apt and meaningful to be awarded the prize in Africa, during such a significant literary event as the Zimbabwe Book Fair.
Looking back, do you think winning the prize made an impact on your writing career?
It certainly did. It gave me greater confidence in myself and it gave my work more exposure. From a practical point of view, it speeded up the publication of my short story collection Coloured Lights which included my Caine winning story. It also enabled me to get a deal with a London publisher for the publication of my second novel. Before winning the prize, I was published by a small university press. Also after winning the prize, the Heinemann African Writers Series published an imprint of my first novel The Translator for sale in Africa.
Generally speaking, what do you think is the significance of prizes in a writer’s life and work? There is a ‘stamp of approval’ effect, for the public there is a highlighting of a particular writer or a particular work from among others and (so important nowadays for widening readership) there is greater publicity. The significance of prizes can’t be overestimated. They can make or break a career. Unless you are a best-seller, you are judged by the prizes you won or were short-listed for.
Your winning story is The Museum. Ben Okri, who was one of the judges, describes the story as “moving, gentle, ironic, quietly angry and beautifully written.” Do you ever go back to that story? Does is occupy a special place in your body of writing?
It meant a great deal to me that Ben Okri, of all people, was the chair of the judges and I very much appreciated his comments. The Museum has been more anthologised and read than any other of my stories. Ironically, it never was my favorite story. I never particularly liked the characters and I felt distanced from them. My favorite story at the time was The Ostrich, but it didn’t meet with the same success. I suspect that The Museum was artistically better developed and more mature.
Back in 2000, Okri could say to the Guardian readership: “I recommend a general interest in African writing to widen taste and see how other people live, dream, and overcome.” It appears to me that today African writing is so ubiquitous that it is hardly necessary to make such an exhortation. What do you think?
I wish I could fully agree. Within literary and academic circles, perhaps, but for the average reader in the West, an African novel can still means one written by Wilbur Smith or Alexander McCall Smith. Just a couple of months ago, The Telegraph newspaper listed the Ten Best Novels About Africa with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible making the list at the expense of anything by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o or Nuruddin Farah.
Which contemporary African novelists inspire you most?
I have always been inspired by Ahdaf Soueif. Her breakthrough novel In the Eye of the Sun is The Golden Notebook of the Arab woman. Soueif brought the North African novel firmly from the village into the elegant city apartments of the chattering classes and that was a breath of fresh air and a dazzling step forward. In completely different ways, Hisham Matar and NoViolet Bulawayo are exciting, excellent writers. I am also a huge fan of Sefi Atta, her work is always distinctive and unforgettable. The Sudanese writer Amir Taj Elsir writes in Arabic but he is a worthy successor to Amos Tutuola. His bizarre and delightful novel The Grub Hunter has recently been translated into English and published by the AWS.
More recently, there has been a lot debate about what constitutes an African writer. There are those who don’t want to be called African writers because, they claim, it is a reductive term. There are those who complain that certain individuals called African writers are not African enough – case in point: Tope Folarin, the Nigerian-American, who won the Caine Prize last year. What’s your thought on this age-old issue of the African writer’s ambivalence toward national identity?
We need to ask ourselves why is it that being an American writer, a European writer or an Arab writer is not reductive but being an African writer is perceived to be so. If the market or the literary establishment is ghettoising or infantilising African literature then that is what needs to change rather than how African writers describe themselves. As for being not African enough, I suspect that when people make this accusation they are trying to say something else, more subjective, as in not ‘my kind of African’. This is a denial that there are an infinite number of ways of being African, it is not a monolith and one of the exciting things about literature is just how much it challenges our assumptions of national identity by zooming in on cultures within cultures and exposing fluid boundaries.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie caused quite a bit of a controversy last year when she said: “I suppose [the Caine Prize] is a good thing, but for me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa. It’s never been.” What do you think of such a statement? If the Caine Prize is not “the arbiter of good writing in Africa,” what is it then? Do you care to comment on what you think is the role of the Caine Prize, or any prize for that matter, in the contemporary African literature scene?
The Caine Prize focuses on the short story rather than the novel and, over time, it has developed a very effective process of discovering and nurturing new talent. At the moment there is no prize that is awarded to the best African novel of the year regardless of whether the writer is established or a first-time novelist. It would be a welcome thing if such a prize was set up. The Man Asian Prize, for example, shortlists writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Amitav Ghosh, sadly we don’t have an African equivalent. Most of the newly established prizes such as the Etisalat, the Kwani? Manuscript and the Commonwealth are dedicated to new writers. For unpublished, unknown writers this is excellent and African literature will benefit from all this energy and dedication by moving further into the mainstream.
Any words of encouragement to the five authors shortlisted for the 15th edition of the Caine Prize?
If you win, remember there will be another winner next year taking the limelight. So make the most of this year in terms of connections and publication possibilities. Push with all your might.
If you don’t win, go online and see how well previous Caine Prize short-listed authors have done. In many cases, they have had greater success that the winners.
The winner of the £10 000 Caine Prize will be announced at a celebratory dinner at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on Monday 14 July.
Brittle Paper is an African literary blog featuring book reviews, news, interviews, original work and in-depth coverage of the African literary scene. It is curated by Ainehi Edoro and was recently named a ‘go-to book blog’ by Publisher’s Weekly.
Wale had already decided what he would do when he landed on the moon.
“He wouldn’t hit golf balls like the American astronauts” did. Instead, he would play the talking drum, “squeezing out” its rhythms “into the blackness between the stars”.
“He would bind the stars with the drums. There would be dancing.”
Wale’s dream of heading a Nigerian lunar program is the heart of Deji Olukotun’s debut novel Nigerians in Space(2014, Unnamed Press). Wale is a brilliant lunar geologist. For some reason, his rise through Nasa’s bureaucratic hierarchy is stuck at a mid-level research position. This bureaucratic injustice has left him a jaded and bitter man.
But here is Mr Nurudeen Bello – the mysterious mastermind of the Nigerian lunar mission called Project Brain Gain – offering him the chance to walk on the moon.
He has never met Bello in person. He knows Bello only through hushed conversations on pay phones. Bello was a man who existed only in the sound of his voice and the strange power of his words to charm his listeners.
Despite his strong misgivings about the whole enterprise, Wale steals a piece of moon rock from his lab in Nasa, as instructed by Bello, and skips town, taking his wife Tinuke and their little son, Dayo. The plan is that he will meet Bello in Washington DC and officially begin the heroic odyssey to space.
What Wale cannot foresee, however, is that he is about to feature in a classic noir fiction. He will not meet Bello and what follows will be a sky-high pile up of disasters taking place at break-neck speed.
Nigerians in Space is so much a novel of our time that it helps us track how far we’ve come from mid-century African novels. We’ve come a long way from novels like Things Fall Apart, novels that presents life as it takes place in a single locality.
Olukotun’s novel is set in Houston, Stockholm, Basel, Paris Abuja, Bulawayo, Lagos, Cape Town and Johannesburg. These days, African novels are built on the life of the global African nomad.
From Teju Cole’s Julius to Chris Abani’s Sunil, contemporary African fiction is defined by characters for whom mobility is life. They traverse global spaces and force us to think of Lagos and Abuja in the context of Basel and Bulawayo.
Some novels hand the reader one unbroken spool of narrative thread to unravel. The thread may twist and turn as the plot requires, but it is never broken. Nigerians in Space holds the reader’s attention, somewhat counterintuitively, through the stupefying incoherence of the plot.
When Wale’s meeting with Bello fails, his increasing paranoia and desperate attempt to unravel the mystery around Bello and the botched space mission take him through a dizzying array of spaces – from Houston to Stockholm, to Basel, to Cape Town. The first chapter ends, and the reader, who is as confused and breathless as Wale is, turns the page hoping to take comfort in some explanation or a plot movement that takes the story forward.
Instead the reader is transported 21 years to the present day with a sentence that reads: “Thursday Malaysius had worked at Abalone Silver for two years.” No explanation of how Thursday is tied to Wale, Bello, or Project Brain Gain. But then no sooner you fall in love with Thursday, you’re introduced to Melissa, and Mrs. Niyangabo and so on.
These sharp, unpredictable turns in a plot moving at lightning speed is exhilarating and will leave you delightfully lightheaded. I let myself freefall down this zigzagging tunnel of stories. I suggest you do the same. It’s a literary trip of sheer delight. The fragmented portraits and incidents do come together in a stunning collage.
Brittle Paper is an African literary blog featuring book reviews, news, interviews, original work, and in-depth coverage of the African literary scene. It is curated by Ainehi Edoro and was recently named a ‘go-to book blog’ by Publisher’s Weekly.
Nigerian-American writer Tope Folarin has won the 2013 Caine Prize, described as Africa’s leading literary award, for his short story entitled Miracle.
Miracle is a story set in Texas in an evangelical Nigerian church where the congregation has gathered to witness the healing powers of a blind pastor-prophet. Religion and the gullibility of those caught in the deceit that sometimes comes with faith rise to the surface as a young boy volunteers to be healed and begins to believe in miracles.
Folarin was born and raised in the US. He spent a short time in Nigeria and Cape Town and currently lives and works in Washington DC.
“I’m elated,” Folarin told the Guardian. “I’m a writer situated in the Nigerian disapora, and the Caine Prize means a lot – it feels like I’m connected to a long tradition of African writers. The Caine Prize is broadening its definition and scope. I consider myself Nigerian and American, both identities are integral to who I am. To win … feels like a seal of approval.”
Judge Gus Casely-Hayford praised the story, saying: “Tope Folarin’s Miracle is another superb Caine Prize winner – a delightful and beautifully paced narrative, that is exquisitely observed and utterly compelling”.
Folarin is the recipient of writing fellowships from the Institute for Policy Studies and Callaloo, and he serves on the board of the Hurston/Wright Foundation. Tope was educated at Morehouse College and the University of Oxford, where he earned two master’s degrees as a Rhodes Scholar.
The panel of judges this year included award-winning Nigeria-born artist Sokari Douglas Camp, author, columnist and Lord Northcliffe emeritus professor at University College London John Sutherland, assistant professor at Georgetown University Nathan Hensley and the winner of the Caine Prize in its inaugural year, Leila Aboulela. This is the first time that a past winner of the Caine Prize has taken part in the judging.
Once again the winner of the £10 000 Caine Prize will be given the opportunity to take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University, as a writer-in-residence at the Lannan Centre for Poetics and Social Practice, and will be invited to take part in the Open Book Festival in Cape Town in September.
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi are two highly anticipated books by debut novelists. Bulawayo won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story “Hitting Budapest” about a group of children navigating life in a Zimbabwe shanty town. Read it here. She turned it into a full-length novel, which I was fortunate to get an advanced reader copy of. The book is scheduled to be released on May 21.
I first encountered Taiye Selasi on a radio interview. She shared her experience of meeting renowned author Toni Morrison who encouraged her to write after she shared her love for the craft with her. Her first short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls” was published in Granta in 2011 and featured in The Best American Short Stories of 2012. Ghana Must Go has generated a lot of hype in the literary world thanks to rave reviews by Morrison and Salman Rushdie.
A common thread in Bulawayo’s and Selasi’s novels is the issue of home. Where in the world do the characters fit in; where do they call home? Both writers show how immigrants fit in (with mixed results) when they move to America, and how they relate to the folks they left the longer they stay away.
We Need New Names
The story is told from the point of view of 10-year-old protagonist, Darling. We first meet her and her friends Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina as they cross a forbidden road which takes them from their shanty into a nice suburb called Budapest. She describes Budapest as having big houses, with satellite dishes on the roofs, neat gravelled yards, tall fences and huge trees heavy with fruit. And for this group of hungry children, it’s the fruit they’re after – guavas. Though they know not to overindulge due to the resulting constipation, they still do because the guavas are the only way to kill the hunger.
As each day passes every one of them shares their dream of leaving for a better place. Times are tough in Zimbabwe; economic and political instability have rocked the foundation of many people’s lives. Jobs and money are scarce, and those with means (or sheer courage) have fled, often leaving behind the elderly and the very young. Darling’s dream is to go to America, to be with her Aunt Fostalina. Her friends mock her, saying this will never happen but she hangs onto it against all odds. They each hang on to the promise of a better future, elsewhere.
Darling eventually gets her chance to move to America but not before bearing witness to some pretty grim happenings that could have been pulled from the front page of Zimbabwean news dailies. These would otherwise be painful encounters to describe but Darling’s naïveté and innocence take away some of the ugliness.
In the second half of the book, Darling is now in America living with Aunt Fostalina and her family. She bears the bitter cold winters and homesickness with a shocking level of maturity for someone her age. She reasons that she can deal with the snow and the absence of her closest friends because at least she has food, lots of it, and all kinds of it. Here, she doesn’t go hungry.
Though she struggles to make friends due to the typical, idiotic behaviour of school children, who make fun of others for looking and sounding different, she remains focused and adjusts quite admirably to her new life.
As time passes, the more she adjusts to America, the further she drifts from Zimbabwe and the people she left behind. This guilt eats away at her, and she becomes exiled in a sense.
Overall, this is an enjoyable book. Bulawayo does a good job of illustrating the effects of poverty on a nation’s psyche, the alienation felt by those who make the difficult decision to leave home, and their longing for home.
I had some minor quibbles. There are some areas of the book, particularly in the second half, that I felt could’ve been touched on better and perhaps even tied up a little neater for better flow. It felt a little disconnected at times and took away some of my enjoyment.
However, if this book and its writer has been on your radar, definitely give it a try.
Ghana Must Go
“Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs. At the moment he is on the threshold between the sunroom and garden and considering whether to go back to get them. He won’t.”
These are the opening lines that introduce us to Kweku Sai, “a renowned surgeon and failed husband”. It is through his dying that we learn about him and the family he leaves behind. In this three-part story, Selasi goes back and forth in time unravelling the tale of the Sai family.
As a young man, Kweku leaves Ghana on a scholarship to attend medical school in the US. In New England, he meets and marries Folasadé (Fola), a young Nigerian émigré. Fola abandons her dream of attending law school with the understanding that supporting Kweku’s dream is enough. Together they have four children – Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadé (Sadie).
Their story is typical of most immigrant families in the country: both parents working extremely hard to make ends meet while demanding academic excellence from their children so as to escape the traps of poverty with which they are all too familiar. Kweku loves his children but he struggles to understand and relate to them. His duty is that of a provider, not a friend or confidant. When the eldest three children are in their teens, an unfortunate situation spirals out of control and Kweku leaves. Fola must regroup, pick up the fragments and forge ahead.
The second part of the novel focuses on how Fola and her children, now adults, react to Kweku’s death. Each of them carries painful personal secrets. These secrets, like boils, are painful and need to be lanced and drained before healing can begin.
In the third part of the book they all agree to travel to Ghana (where Fola is now living) for Kweku’s funeral. Though not easy, their time there allows them to finally deal with the emotional fallout of events that have held them back for so long. This time is fraught with incredible pain, confusion and mistrust but ultimately they emerge better from it. Kweku’s second and final departure brings his family together again in every sense, in contrast to his earlier exit which fractured familial bonds and sent them all reeling.
Selasi’s writing is enjoyable, poetic and quite dense, but at times the writing gets in the way of telling the story. Since the story unfolds through flashbacks, it’s often hard to follow who the speakers are and what exactly is happening. This is true especially for the first part of the book, which I found to be slower and difficult to read due to the amount of detail the reader has to wade through.
With the added psychological dimensions given to each character, it’s hard not to be affected by their pain and anger. My heart grieved for this family.
Ghana Must Go is definitely worth the read. I look forward to seeing how Selasi’s writing evolves during her career. There is strength in it that begs for more stories.
Bwalya Chileya was born in the early 80s and raised in Malawi and Zambia. She holds a masters in business administration and works as a project manager. She reads and writes stories in her free time. Connect with her on Twitter.