Tag Archive | Africa

Youth (Scenes from Provincial Life #2)- J.M. Coetzee : 8/52 ( Memoir)

A few years ago I went on a date with an aspiring writer. He was the stereotype. Tall, lanky, unshaven, badly dressed and smelling of stale cigarette smoke. He had that faraway look on his face while he spoke about the book he wanted to write. He then told me that he had just quit his job the previous day to focus on the book and was in no position to take what we had to more than just one date. I nodded. On the train back, I realized that if I had met him this way when I was 20,  I would have totally fallen for him. ‘Write me like one of your French girls’ I would have said to him. And he would have. And then dedicated the book to me. And thanked me in his Booker acceptance speech… I Google him once in a while to check whether he made it. He still hasn’t.

A few weeks ago another crush,again an aspiring writer who is going through the motions in a regular desk job, mentioned this book to me. ( Yeah. Looks I have a thing for aspiring writers. And not without good reason ) A book about a poet stuck in a dead end computer programming job at IBM and how he could totally relate to it. Though the crush itself didn’t last for more than a week, the book recommendation did.

A white confused South African who wants to escape his homeland,one he feels is not rightfully his, to become a poet in the land of the artists and writers. While he would love to go to France, he settles for England. And there, he is again forced to settle for less. He settles for a job that puts food on his table but eats away his creative soul. He settles for women who aren’t the muse he is desperately looking for. But that poet in him does not settle down. It flits from thought to thought, aimlessly drifting through the days and nights, summers and winters hoping that his dreams will somehow find him.

The prose is beautiful. It just moves from moment to moment, feeling to feeling in a rushed, haphazard way. It makes you feel helpless and while you keep hoping for something good to happen, you somehow know that nothing is going to happen.There are so many poets and authors referred to in the book, most of them whom I haven’t read or even heard of. Makes me want to try them, maybe I’ll start with Ezra Pound, our hero’s hero. While the political situation across the world in the early sixties isn’t the main backdrop, it is the undercurrent that drives the narration forward. I realized that  know so little about South Africa. There’s a touch of India too. Satyajit Ray makes an appearance and so does Indian curry. And it also appears that Indian computer programmers living abroad haven’t changed their habits over the decades.

‘”At 18 he might have been a poet. Now he is not a poet, not a writer, not an artist. He is a computer programmer, a 24year old computer programmer in a world where there are (yet) no 30 year old computer programmers. At 31 he is too old to be a programmer: one turns oneself into something else – some kind of businessman – or shoots oneself”

Words that hang heavy on me. Different contexts, same implication. Scary. Very scary.

Had this book not been labelled a ‘fictionalized memoir’, it would have made it to my dark and twisty shelves. But no. Our hero went on to win the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature. If Astrid or Caroline or Jacqueline Google him, they would know that he made it.

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The Colour Purple- Alice Walker : 5/52 (Colour)

Such a feel good book.

Whaat? Yes. To me, it was a feel good book. Because, read it to know why.

Celie. Young, traumatized, lost, helpless Celie writes letters to god because she has no one else to write to. She tells god about how she got big after her Pa visited her at night. She tells god about the babies she gave birth to, the babies that disappeared, the baby she saw again with the pastor’s wife. About how she was made to marry Mister___ just to look after him and his horrid kids because her father refused to let her younger and prettier sister Nettie marry him. Through these letters,she tells god the story of her life. She doesn’t complain, she doesn’t ask him for anything. She just tells him.

Her closest relative is her sister Nettie who suddenly leaves her life, and then Shug enters. Shug, her husband Mister____’s mistress. Shug who had children with Mister_____.But again, Celie just takes it in as what was meant to be. She nurses Shug back to health and the two women form a bond that is so tender, so beautiful and oh so disturbingly twisted. All the relationships in the book are so strong and beautiful. Celie and Sophia, two women at the opposite ends of the spectrum. While Celie submits to fate, Sophia punches fate in the nose, be it her husband Harpo or his new girlfriend Squeak or the mayor’s wife. The women and men are so different, but so much the same. They love, they live, they laugh, they bond. And inspite of everything, they stay together as one big happy family. There are round houses, there are pink houses and there are pretty pants. Yes, it is a happy book because not once did I lose hope. There was always something that kept telling me that things will change for everyone, and it did. Maybe it was the way Celie looked at life with no expectations. Such and attitude shames god and he feels guilty and so, he gives.

I usually don’t highlight much, but in this book, I highlighted almost an entire chapter. The one where Shug and Celie talk about god. It was such a stimulating discussion and it gave me an answer that no one has been able to give me all these years. That is god to me.

The book moves to Africa and gives you a glimpse of life in an African village through the eyes of a black American woman. Something quite the opposite of Americanah. Much of that reminded me of Things Fall Apart. How the white man makes inroads into the continent in the name of civilizing the heathen natives, bringing progress and development and taking away the little bit of life that they have.

There’s graphic sex and violence, there’s deep racism, there’s capitalism, there’s chauvinism, there’s a wide gender divide. But it also overcomes. Everything.

I really don’t understand why this book was so controversial. Maybe those who outraged about it didn’t read it till the very end.

Things Fall Apart- Chinua Achebe :51/52

No literary masterpiece, but a haunting tale. A tale of how things simply fall apart.

I don’t know why I had been putting off reading this book for so long. This was ‘prescribed’ when I finished the Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche series, it was recommended by so many people, but somehow I kept giving it a pass. Anyway better late than never. I finished it in one sitting. Simple narration, simple language, gripping plot. And to think that this was a book whose manuscript almost got lost. Thank god it didn’t. I guess there is an Agbala after all.

Men invade in the name of many things. Race supremacy, greed, power, boredom, religion, to-save-humankind-from-opression ( read: Oil) and finally, the worst of all: To Do Good. And worst of the worst? To Do Good in the name of religion.

Okonkwo is a farmer. A simple farmer leading a simple life in a simple village. Inspite of a wasterel father, he beat the odds, worked hard and is who he is today : A respectable man in his village living happily with his three wives and six children. He is a legendary wrestler, a feareless warrior who drinks palm wine from human skulls. He spends his days planting yams,  beating his wives, celebrating at weddings, sharing manly stories with his sons and complaining about the quality of snuff. He is even one of the egwugwus, the ‘masked ancestors’ who deliver judgements to the village people. The rules in his village are clear and simple: Kill a man’s wife, replace her with another woman. A week before planting, observe Peace Week  so that the gods aren’t angered. Break those rules, pay for it with poultry. Sick from an un-understandable disease, be abandoned in the Evil Forest to die. Twins that cannot be explained, again, Evil Forest. Commit an inadvertant crime, a crime that is categorised ‘female’ (as opposed to a deliberate ‘male’ crime’), be exiled for seven years. Simple.

And it is one of those ‘female’ crimes that sends Okonkwo into exile. And brings him back after seven years to his village that has now been taken over by Christian missionaries, white men. White men who first take away his son, white men who rescue abandoned twins from the Evil Forest, white men who slowly embrace the village outcasts into their fold, white men who bribe villagers with education, white men who create a court and form a government. White men who then supress rebellion. White men who tear things apart. All in the name of their loving god, their only god. All in the name of bringing civilization to ‘savage tribes’.

And it makes me wonder why. Why make Things Fall Apart when you can just Let It Be.

PS: I read some stupid reviews outraging about the misogyny and stuff in the book. Give it a break, yo. That was tribal Africa. Deal with it. 

Afternote:

When I went to Zambia, I went expecting a land of ‘savages and witch doctors’ and starving children. Seriously. As ashamed as I am of stereotyping, I was so disappointed when all I got was five star accommodation and a client who had two Mercedes cars, American university degrees and a membership at the golf club. For sightseeing I was asked to visit the malls and safari parks that charged in USD, flea markets that sold Zimbabwean dollars ( I bought a 100 billion dollar note) and touristy tribal artefacts. The village I visited had old women with cellphones. Of course, it was 2012 and there were no ‘savages and witch doctors’. I rode around the city with the CEO of the company, a devout Christian who only played Christian devotional music or sermons in his car. But he also looked at me and said that he’d take me as his second wife if I had been Zambian. No, he wasn’t hitting on me. He said it like it was a thing. Just like that.

And I saw this idol in a Christian church. I couldn’t figure out who this was. ( There was a ‘normal’ Jesus on the cross too, so was this something carried forward from the ‘heathen’ faith?)

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If it is, I wonder what the White Man has to say about it.

 

 

 

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie : 35/52

Judgy. Preachy. Self Righteous. Borderline. But readable.

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I’m not a big fan of isms or anti isms. It makes people big bores. Like when I open Twitter at 6 am and I see a flood of 1/n feminist tweets going on and on about patriarchy- misogyny -blah. Or a conversation about communalism vs ‘sickularism’ with 234 replies that has been going on since 9 pm the previous night. Not denying that these are serious isms that need to be addressed, but as I said, it just makes people big bores. I digress. This is about Americanah and the ism that made this book a small bore: Racism.

It starts off on a interesting note. Ifemelu has decided to return to Nigeria after fifteen long years in the USA. The story unfolds as she sits in a hair salon, getting her hair braided, a six hour long process where she is forced to make conversation with the girl doing her hair. An immigrant from Senegal, the hair girl wants to marry any one of her boyfriends, both Igbos who refuse to marry her since she’s not an Igbo. (It is not just the Indian immigrants who stick to culture-caste-clan rules) Hair plays a very important role in the book. It is a symbol of individuality, conformity, rebellion, acceptance, submissiveness. Hair was what started off her Race blog, the one with a long name : ‘ Observations of an African Black on racism and African American blacks formerly known as negroes’ . Or something like that. That’s where the book got boring. She judges Americans, judges them for everything right from not scrubbing while showering to eating bread for lunch. It always angers me when racism and stereotyping is Racism and Stereotyping only when done to Them. It is perfectly fine when it is the other way round. ( Again, not denying the seriousness of anything, it all exists, but still.  And Them here can mean anyone who suffers any -ism. Ok. I’m not making sense )

Having read and watched a lot about Indian immigrants in the US; most of them ,barring the heavy Jumpa Lahri, being self deprecating comedies , this book gave a different and interesting perspective of immigrant life through the eyes of an African who enters the land of Whites, Hispanics, Asians and African Americans and suddenly discovers her blackness. A unique kind of identity crisis that she isn’t able to come to terms with till the very end. She develops and undevelops her American accent, relaxes and unrelaxes her hair. She gets into a serious relationship with a pale white man and later, with a serious intellectual African American. But there is something always missing in her life: Her life.

And on the other side, her America crazy boyfriend who is denied an American visa and lives through a more tangible kind of torturous life in London, cleaning toilets, working illegally and watching his friends slip into fake English lives until he gets deported minutes before his sham marriage takes place. He returns to Nigeria, gets rich and hires a white man as his general manager. But that’s not some kind of sweet victory. The white man is hired just to add ‘value’ to his business. Vicious circle.

Back to Nigeria, as an Americanah, Ifemelu again does a whole lot of judging the New Nigeria. Their wannabeness, their shift from fresh potatoes to frozen ones, their shallowness, their corruption, their morality. Two minutes towards the end of the book , when you’re waiting to know if they Did or Didn’t, there is a painfully long conversation between freshly introduced characters just to plug in thoughts about the current economic trends.

I would have liked more about Dike, the  African Born America Bred Confused Black American Teenager. His story wasn’t given closure. Similarly, Ifemelu’s relationship with her white employers started off on a promising note , there was scope to explore a different kind of friendship. But Kimberly and her family disappeared abruptly, again, no closure. Blaine, his sister and his friends were plain boring.

Another thing that stood out for me was the casual attitude towards infidelity. Now I’m not judging here, but there was something not quite right in the way she took it for granted about how she could pick up from where she left off with her now married ex. Or when she cheats on Curt with no solid ‘excuse’ or ‘reason’.  Yes, it was the fictional character doing it, but her lack of guilt and the confidence was mildly disturbing. And the trend of being an unapologetic mistress for material gains, right from Aunty Uju and The General to  Rainyundo and the Banker or Obinze’s offer to Ifemelu . Again, if it is a reflection of reality, it is disturbing.

If  I could give this book stars in parts, the first half would get four stars. And the second half , with the series of long conversations and blog posts, essays on racism masquerading as fiction, gets two stars.

Still a fan of Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche, but Purple Hibiscus will remain my favourite book.