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REVIEW: A Memory This Size and Other Stories

memory and writing

A memory this sizeA Memory This Size and Other Stories

Jacana

REVIEW: Maya Fowler

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” said WB Yeats in his poem The Second Coming, his words famously echoed in the title of Chinua Achebe’s groundbreaking 1958 novel. But does the centre still hold? Is Western tradition still the centre, for literature, after all?

At first inspection – and bearing in mind that NoViolet Bulawayo’s Booker-nominated We Need New Names and Nigeria’s acclaimed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah are both set in the States – the reader might think America is some kind of axis for the African imagination. Three of the five shortlisted stories are directly concerned with America. However, read on and you soon discover the majority of themes are tied to home soil. Even so, “[p]eople have a way of getting lost in America,” fears a mother in the story titled America. “America has a way of stealing our good ones from us. When America calls, they go.”

This year’s Caine Prize was not without controversy. Things turned nasty after Adichie said in an interview that she wasn’t interested in the Caine collection, and didn’t think it’s where you’d find the best African writing. Shortlistee Abubakar Adam Ibrahim responded with a swift “F*ck you” on Twitter, while Elnathan John revealed perhaps more than he should have of his feelings towards Adichie on his blog.

A Memory This Size and Other Stories consists of the five stories shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize – all of exceptional quality – as well as 12 new, specially produced stories created at this year’s Caine Prize workshop in Uganda.

Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin

Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin

First prize went to Tope Folarin for Miracle, set in a Nigerian evangelical church in Texas. While I agree with one judge’s appraisal that Miracle is “a delightful and beautifully paced narrative, that is exquisitely observed and utterly compelling,” I prefer Pede Hollist’s Foreign Aid.

This story, of a man from Sierra Leone who emigrates to America and becomes fat on both fast food and on the worst of the values he finds there, was filled with the same cynicism as the winning story, but with perhaps even more dark humour. In this account of the protagonist’s return to his native “Salone”, a “Louis Vuitton fanny pack” of dollars strapped to his waist, we are shown what happens when a man behaves like a tourist in his home country. While the writer pokes fun at certain American ways, he does not shy away from illustrating Sierra Leone’s problems.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees contains elements of magic realism. A young man, dead but not dead, blinded by the accident that killed him but didn’t, emerges from the hell of depression able to see the souls of people and objects. The protagonist’s bad behaviour, in the darkest period of his blindness, held for me flashes of Orhan Pamuk. I love this story, but Ibrahim’s workshop story, The Book of Remembered Things, also included in the anthology, I love more. It deals with religious disbelief, but also zeal. It is a sensitive, moving portrayal of one family’s love, hate and hurt, and ways of protecting, that will stay with me for a long time.

Bayan Layi, by Elnathan John, is a brilliant and terrifying story of children running wild; boys without hope, without love, that speak the language of violence and of killing. I was impressed by the writer’s ability to make you warm to the protagonist, even though the child is someone you’d hate to meet in person. John’s characters are striking and complex.

Perhaps my favourite was Chinelo Okparanta’s America, in which a young Nigerian teacher, who dreams of being an environmental engineer, follows her lover to America. It is a poignant love story in which we are reminded that there are trickier places than America to be gay. The protagonist explains to the visa interviewer that she wants to go to America to study environmental engineering so that she can learn about recent oils spills in the US and how to apply the lesson in the Niger Delta.

The story speaks of some form of restitution. If, for centuries, colonial powers tapped Africa of its natural resources, with little regard for environmental impact, perhaps they can at least pass on knowledge of how to deal with environmental disaster today.

The second section of the collection, the workshop stories, holds some brilliant work, and some of a less polished standard. The short story is a difficult form for the new(er) writer, and especially endings can be elusive. This is clear from the weaker stories, which are sabotaged by their endings more than anything else. Yet there is no shortage of excellent writing in the workshop section.

Wazha Lopang’s The Strange Dance of the Calabash is a delightful dig at patriarchy and arranged marriage. Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s Blood Guilt is an ironic, chilling but darkly humorous account of post-liberation atrocity. Hellen Nyana’s Chief Mourner deserves special mention for its pathos and focus on relationships. Rotimi Babatunde’s Howl is a wonderful piece of satire and magic realism. Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s haunting Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile deals with environmental concerns. And Elnathan Johns’ A Memory This Size is magnificent piece of work. As it happens, John’s bio reads that he has “tried hard, but has never won anything.”

I’m willing to bet that last part will change.

  • Fowler is a writer, editor and translator
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2013

REVIEW: Maddaddam

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imagesMaddAddam

Margaret Atwood

Bloomsbury

REVIEW: Karina Magdalena Szczurek

 

The day the Nobel Laureate for Literature was announced in October was a great day for the short story, for women writers, for Canadian literature, and for the remarkable Alice Munro. Yet, my heart bled for another Canadian writer: Margaret Atwood. The ways of the Nobel committee are unfathomable, but given the choice between a brilliant Canadian woman short-story writer, and a brilliant Canadian woman short-story writer, novelist, essayist and poet all in one, it’s hard not to wonder what went through their minds.

Undoubtedly, there is a prejudice against so-called genre writing, even when it transcends such reductionist labels with the impeccable quality of its offerings, as do most works stemming from Atwood’s pen. Her The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a classic. Not that Atwood’s work can be lumped into any category. In the last decade, Atwood has published extensively, but the emphasis has been on the speculative fiction trilogy which began with the Booker-shortlisted Oryx and Crake (2003) and now concludes with MaddAddam. Perhaps the genre has torpedoed Atwood’s chances with the committee? If so, it is regrettable. But having said so, this is not to take anything away from the recognition of Munro’s work of which I am an avid admirer.

Also, I hope the above will testify to my respect for Atwood’s prolific writing and put my disappointment in her latest novel into context.margaret-atwood

Oryx and Crake blew me away. Set in a not too distant future, it tells the story of Jimmy, the seemingly last human survivor of an apocalyptic plague unleashed on the world by his best friend Crake. In Jimmy’s care are the Crakers, a genetically engineered, green-eyed, blue-penis-swinging, eerily singing and purring humanoid species – Crake’s idea of an improvement on depraved humanity. The novel ends when Jimmy, injured and hallucinating, encounters three other human beings.

The follow-up, The Year of the Flood (2009), recounts the same story from another perspective and also leads up to the charged encounter. The three people Jimmy sees are Amanda, previously of the God’s Gardeners, an eco-sect founded by Adam One and led by the street-wise Zeb, and her malevolent kidnappers who have raped and tortured her. As it turns out, two others are also watching the confrontation: Ren, Amanda’s best friend, and Toby, their erstwhile teacher at the God’s Gardeners, who have likewise survived the pandemic. They are the protagonists of The Year of the Flood.

Having loved the ingenious predecessors, I reread them before turning to the trilogy’s highly anticipated conclusion. The joy I got out of the rereading turned out to be the best part of the whole experience. MaddAddam aptly wraps up some of the loose ends of the other novels, but it far from delivers on their considerable promise.

How is the handful of remaining humans going to build up a new life from the ruins of the post-pandemic world where genetically spliced plant and animal species sprawl and roam free, dangerous pig-human hybrids among them? What role will women, previously mass exploited and brutalised, play in this newly-fledged society? What is their interaction with the naïve, peace-loving Crakers going to be like? How will Jimmy feature in the mix, especially since three of his ex-girlfriends are among the survivors, and two of them have been inadvertently raped and impregnated by the Crakers who still see Jimmy as their creator’s prophet? What will they all make of Crake’s brilliantly insane plan for humankind and their own involvement in its execution?

The potential conflicts appear ripe for the picking. But MaddAddam only skirts these issues. Instead, the novel focuses on the backstories of Zeb and Adam One, and the enfolding relationship between Toby and Zeb. The former dominate large chunks of the narrative and unnecessarily demystify two of the most intriguing characters of the trilogy. The latter descends into the ludicrous stuff that soap operas are made of.

The mutations the main characters undergo in MaddAddam are baffling. Top-notch scientists, hackers and revolutionaries turn into bitchy fashionistas. The strictly vegetarian God’s Gardeners tuck into juicy steaks and crisp bacon. The tough, mysterious Zeb transforms into a chauvinistic jerk – “beneath vulgar”, in the words of his brother. Most discouraging, the once resilient and wise Toby begins acting like a lovesick teenager. Jimmy is comatose for nearly the entire time and when he finally regains consciousness, most of his conflicted, poignant nature stays behind in the coma.

The tension and the emotional intelligence of the first two novels are irreparably compromised in MaddAddam. But not all is lost. Moments of dark humour, the homage to the power of storytelling, some twists in the inter-species relations, and above all Atwood’s powerful prose, provide some satisfaction. But compared to the first two incisive instalments of the trilogy which both ended with a bang, MaddAddam is a mere whimper.

  • Szczurek is a writer, editor, and literary critic based in Cape Town.
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2013.

Happiest book I’ve read this year

penumbra cover image

I squeezed the last few pages of Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore into little rogue minutes today. The last paragraph made me goose-bumpy up and down my limbs.

What an unusual book. And how utterly, squeakingly sweet and warm, what a squishy lovely heart it has, how fuzzy and cuddly the various ropes that tie all the lovely ideas together.

I can’t remember when last a book made me feel so happy. Does that sound twee and silly? Mebbe, bebbe, but hell, Mr Sloan is an unexpected burst of nice.

Here’s a link to the first chapter, and here’s the review we ran in the Cape Times:

penumbraMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan

Atlantic Books

Clay Jannon is out of work. He’s part of the Google-generation and so it comes as a surprise to him when he finds himself working at a very strange bookstore. He also finds himself working for one of the most endearing literary characters I have chanced upon in years: Mr Penumbra. The 24-hour bookstore is no ordinary one. It has members, not customers, and Clay’s job is to service them and not read the books. Of course he does and the plot pages its way through a post-modern clash between the arcane and the internet generation. Part mystery and part story about a love affair with the written word, and an unlikely friendship, Robin Sloan has pulled off a book that holds as many surprises as his bookstore does. Whether you are a loyal book aficionado or like to be glued to your e-reader you will find a home in this wonderfully complex tale.

 

REVIEW: A Tale for the Time Being

ruth ozeki

a tale for the time being

A Tale for the Time Being

By Ruth Ozeki

Canongate

REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar

Halfway though this complex, driven ‘double story’, there is a theatrical rift between novelist Ruth and her environment-artist Oliver about the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl Nao she had found, washed up near their house on a remote island coast in British Columbia.

In their purposely slow read, over some time, of the compelling diary, they had come to a point where the urge to find out whether the girl died in the 2011 tsunami or committed suicide, as she constantly threatened, had forced their own relationship to a flash point.

Oliver defuses the situation be reminding Ruth that what they had been reading was ten years old. A decade had passed since Nao’s passionate private reports on pages inserted under cover of Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

The penny dropped: the urgency that they had experienced to ‘save’ or find the troubled teenager had been overtaken by the reality of history. Time had become an impossible deal, the moment of life and death paradoxical.

At this point the deliciously poetic title of this remarkable, ground-breaking and beautiful novel is driven to a climax. The dense and yet clearly conveyed philosophy of perception and experience of time is nailed down in superbly exposed human emotion and real passion.

Author Ruth Ozeki, shortlisted for Man Booker Prize for this, her third novel, had set the intrigue from the start. “My name is Nao, and I am a time being… someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

Those opening lines of the diary set an ambiguous trap for the reader, into which we happily fall.

As does the fictional Ruth, because as a novelist, she had been struggling with a memoir. Her ‘writer’s block’ – and subsequent tension with her easy-going partner – is contrasted with the blabbermouth writing of the young, outspoken, clever, girl. (Exquisite writing by Ozeki makes this first-person voice memorably vivid.)

This establishes also the format of the novel. Alternative chapters tell the two stories as they unfold in two historic time zones, places and communities. With this Ozeki sets a nifty rhythm for the reader.

Nao sets out to tell the life story of her 104-year-old anarchist feminist Buddhist nun great-grandmother Jiko. Yet the diary entries in purple ink relate her own sad life.

Displaced in Japanese society after her early childhood in the USA, she writes candidly about the bullying at school, the humiliation, sex and her dysfunctional parents. Shreds of youthful, tragi-comic humour shines though as, after her father’s second failed suicide attempt, she complains that if he is going to do something, he should at least follow through with it.

Her exploration of Buddhism exposes mature intelligence. She discovers that zazen meditation is to “enter time completely”. She responds to Jiko and admires her great-uncle Haruki, who was forced to become a kamikaze pilot and wrote a secret diary in French.

As Ruth reads this on the other side of the world, her life too moves towards clarity – a kind of spiritual understanding of herself as writer. A planned memoir had been stuck for years, as if life simply wouldn’t get on.

The cunning narrative that Ozeki constructs – and it is truly a most readable story with colourful characters, vivid settings and dramatic turns – evolves gently to meditation of the meaning of time. And, ultimately, the significant, private experience of life.

Death is the counter part, the defining moment, the instant history stops: old people dying (Nao’s beloved great-grandmother the Buddhist nun Jiko and Ruth’s mother), persons threatening to commit suicide (both Nao and her hapless father), or having to commit suicide (her great uncle, a kamikaze pilot in the war).

Ozeki is not shy to spread the simulacra and symbols of time around: a war-time watch rewound after many years, faded diaries and old letters, sea currents that take years to move, a nun endlessly old, the change of seasons, and plenty of quotes from Buddhist sages and poets.

Naturally this points to the nature of writing itself. The diary and memoir as report. The novel as a construct of both writer and reader in time. (There is a dynamic ‘magical realist’ moment of reader panic when Ruth discovers or dreams that the rest of Nao’s diary contains only blank pages, hence no conclusion to her story.)

It is all marvellously evocative – and purposefully complex to hook the reader to the arguments. It’s a superb read.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: We Need New Names

noviolet

we need knew names

NoViolet Bulawayo

Chatto & Windus

REVIEW: Kayang Gagiano

Penned under her unusual pseudonym, Zimbabwean author Elizabeth Tshele has turned “Hitting Budapest’’, her award-winning short story which won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, into a ferocious, hard hitting debut novel laced with bitter gallows humour. It’s a cautionary tale, which made me quite literally flinch on occasion. Prospective readers should prepare themselves for the emotional equivalents of jabbing upper cuts and the occasional well-aimed gut punch to the solar plexus, as We Need New Names conjures a nightmarish vision of life in a corrupt, and politically and socially unstable African nation.

Does this get a bit much sometimes? Yes, it can. Does Bulawayo sometimes come dangerously close to creating yet another ‘trauma junkie’ portrayal of Africa? To a degree. But luckily she succeeds in balancing her often macabre vision with wonderfully irreverent passages and wry social commentary which lifts her book beyond the merely sensationalistic. Since the second half of her book is set in the United States, the juxtaposition of two very different worlds also puts a refreshingly different spin on things and creates a more nuanced end product.

The first half of We Need New Names has strong elements of a dystopian, surrealist modern day fable. The novel tells the coming of age story of Darling (also our first person narrator) who, when we meet her, is a street savvy, jaded nine-year-old girl living in an unnamed African country. (Readers will soon enough pick up that this is contemporary Zimbabwe.)

Darling is part of a marauding band of brutalised street children living in a derelict shanty town on the edge of the capital, the ironically named, ‘Paradise’. Their suburban homes have long ago been bulldozed by the overzealous Mugabe government, their schools have been closed and their teachers retrenched, their parents are out struggling to make ends meet. They are desensitised and feral and spend their days trawling more affluent suburbs stealing fruit and ferreting for booty, or engage in bizarre role playing and games most of which seem to bear some element of crassness or viciousness. They steal the shoes of a suicide victim for bread money. They pretend to be a band of presidential supporters beating an opposition party member to death. Bastard, their gang’s self anointed leader, is an unmitigated bully – a Mugabe enforcer of the future. These kids wear American College T-shirts donated by aid workers and expediently pander to the clicking cameras of do-gooders and pressmen in the hopes of handouts. Their daily activities and attitudes are there to offer readers a horrifying reflection of the spiritual and moral erosion of their society.

Bulawayo highlights mob brutality, the scourge of Aids, child molestation, the lightweight impact of international aid and other issues as she weaves her absorbing tale. It’s all rather menacing and creepy and depressing yes – but the strange fact is, these kids are also having fun, being creative and making the most of bleak circumstances. They haven’t lost their sense of vitality, no matter how tough life may be. So while Bulawayo’s weakness as first time novelist may be her urge to overdo ‘the horror, the horror’ (she can be heavy handed with the litany of woes), her child narrator’s delightful candour (used to great ironic effect), her lively prose which brims over with verve, and her insightful juxtaposition of Darling’s early life set against her later coming of age in the United States, justify her inclusion on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. The novel’s unpunctuated dialogue, however, can make for tricky reading. While it adds to the narrative’s surrealist edge, I would have been glad of quotation marks to distinguish spoken words in the text.

In the novel’s second half, Bulawayo cannily describes Darling’s adolescence as part of an illegal immigrant family headed by her Aunt Fostalina and Fostalina’s Ghanaian partner. While the author continues to blend bleakness with humour in this part of the story, as Darling’s skewed immersion into the false promise of the great, ephemeral ‘American Dream’ is described, the satire is gentler and in many ways far more effective. The author, who like her protagonist immigrated to the States as pre-teen, has great fun cocking a snoot at Middle American mall culture. Hankering for home, Darling changes her accent, goes shopping with friends, watches internet porn, takes on demeaning part time jobs and finds herself (along with fellow émigrés) inhabiting a conflicted state of economic and cultural limbo.

Bulawayo’s dense prose is layered with meaning. For every observation Darling makes, whether it be about a bogus lay preacher plying his salvation trade in a Harare ghetto, or about her Americanised aunt’s obsession with diets and Victoria’s Secret lingerie, there is much incisive social commentary in this unusual and thought provoking text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Pilgrim

pilgrim

pilgrimPILGRIM
Pieter Cilliers
Protea Book House

REVIEW: Shirley de Kock Gueller

The English translation and update of Pieter Cilliers’ groundbreaking book, ‘n Kas is vir Klere (I wish he had published the book under the title, A Closet is for Clothes) is making an appearance 16 years after the Afrikaans was published. The first part – the original book now called Different – is heartbreakingly and movingly written. The second part, Sixteen Years Later, comprises responses to the book, with Cilliers’ insightful commentary.

8776063359_860059bd19Cilliers is well-known as a television producer, and particularly as the man who turned Carte Blanche into an investigative journalistic force in this country. But, as a Hervormde Kerk minister at the age of 23, the young Cilliers was schooled in the Biblical response to homosexuality and thus, along with many of his peers, battled the wisdom that said homosexuality was deviant, and could be corrected with treatment. What’s shocking is that there are still people around who deny research that homosexuality is not a choice.

Faced with a father who had no truck with homosexuals, a country that believed the American Field Service was ‘commie’, a conditioned rural society of boys who scorned those who were different, Cilliers recounts without pity the pain he suffered, not least in accepting himself for who he was and is.

As important, he recounts his awakening to the struggles that others were suffering especially in the church thanks to the dogmatic justification of apartheid and keeping women out of the pulpit. It’s an assault on hypocrisy and were it not so damaging and hurtful it would be almost funny. There are times when you may be moved to tears, times when you will get enraged, times when you will laugh at the things he says and at the characters he sketches.

It’s a reminder of the narrow-minded days when people rushed to Lesotho to watch the banned Godspell, and when the church, for a time, banned the ‘pagan’ wedding march by Mendelssohn. It’s searingly honest and, coupled with the fact that the television producer is so-well known, it is really courageous. His writing style is clear and concise, also sensitive and keeps you reading. You can feel his desolation and isolation, usually self-imposed because he felt he couldn’t confide in anyone, and then applaud the guts it took to publish his story.

This is a social history, a lesson in self-acceptance and, above all, a lesson about ignorance, misconceptions, moral judgment and prejudice. In spite of our tolerant constitution, there’s still ignorance and prejudice, as you will discover in the letters he quotes.

Not all are hostile … some show how the book gave them courage, others recount their own quests for honesty, and others are downright laudatory. Prof Wimpie de Klerk writes: “I salute you with a sincere warmth … your accessible style … your storyline is gripping ….. your struggle …your protest against the traditions of the church …. ”

Buy it and read it. It’s completely worth it.