Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

This novel is like nothing else I’ve ever read, it describes an inner world, an occupied mind, from that inside. It puts the reader in a position of imagining, perhaps even to a certain degree understanding, what it might be like to have your subconscious and conscious mind occupied by other entities, entities with a voice, with personality, that from time to time take over the body, affect behaviour, talk to you and through you.

Reality is depicted from their perspective, giving full voice to the multiple entities, birthed (through traumas) at different times during the life of Ada (her name though her father told her just meant ‘precious’, in its truest form, meant, the egg of a python), who was born a girl (though doesn’t stay one) in Nigeria and educated in America, where much of the narrative takes place.

We become aware of their presence from the opening pages, before they are awakened within Ada, in a chapter that is utterly compelling as we come to realise who the ‘we‘ is that is narrating much of the story. And ‘we‘ is not the only non-human narrator.

These personalities inhabit a place (referred to in the text as the marble room) within the body/mind, they lie dormant until they are awakened, they keep each other company in that space, they co-habit this one body and constantly justify their existence and inclinations and sometimes act out on them, though they too seem capable of evolving, just as their human needs to and does. And just in case you think this is sounding like fantasy or science fiction, it’s not, this is a semi-autobiographical novel, much of it corresponds to the author’s experience and perceived reality of the world.

These multiple entities exist, they are not illusions or metaphors, they have names and characteristics that manifest into different behaviours through human ‘Ada’ who simultaneously suffers from them, is supported by them, at times is even dependent on them. They are one, but with many aspects that from the external perspective risk being judged as something labelled otherwise depending on the country/culture – such as personality disorder or schizophrenia due to our limited view in defining other states of being. When one entity is more present, Ada’s way of being in the world alternates between her human personality and that of the other presence, whether it’s we, Asughara, or Saint Vincent.

Ogbanje by Akwaeke Emezi

From the perspective of Nigerian ontology (philosophical study of the nature of being), Ada (as the author also self-identifies) may be perceived as ‘ogbanje‘, a child that usually doesn’t live long and is often reborn into the same family. It is believed that these children recognise the difficulty of living in this world and choose to leave it, only on arriving at the gates of heaven they’re denied entry, they’re judged as being lazy and indolent and are sent back to try again. When they are present in the world, they often have particular psychic abilities and/or an other-worldliness about them, they’re believed by some to be possessed, they don’t particularly enjoy the dense, limited human body and experience.

Ogbanje (noun): An embodied spirit passing as human, who transitions rapidly between birth and death, i.e. possessing the ability to ‘come and go’.

Only the child Ada is saved from a death that might have sent her back by her father, a modern Igbo man with medical training from the Soviet Union and years of living in London. He did not believe in anything superstitious that might have made him view the scene he rescued her from as anything other than death. In rescuing her, he prevents the entities from leaving.

He had no idea what he had done.

Akwaeke Emezi depicts these influences and describes being human as a temporary vessel for this other kind of presence which until Ada understands and accepts it, she will continue to suffer as if she is one and not all of them. The ability to make them so real to the reader, to create what feel like real characters from them, is astounding.

“All the madnesses, each and every blinding one, they can all be traced back to the gates. Those carved monstrosities, those clay and chalk portals, existing everywhere and nowhere and all at once. They open, things are born, they close. The opening is easy, a pushing out, an expansion, an inhalation: the dust of divinity released into the world. It has to be a temporary channel, though, a thing that is sealed afterward, because the gates stink of knowledge, they cannot be left swinging wide like a slack mouth, leaking mindlessly. That would contaminate the human world – bodies are not meant to remember things from the other side. There are rules. But these are gods and they move like heated water, so the rules are softened and stretched. The gods do not care. It is not them after all, that will pay the cost.”

At one point Ada seeks out a therapist and at first her entities don’t notice, they are not always present, but they’d told her to keep them inside her head, in the marble room, so no one could see them.

So when she started looking up her “symptoms”, it felt like a betrayal – like she thought we were abnormal. How can we be, when we were her and she was us? I watched her try to tell people about us and I smiled when they told her it was normal to have different parts of yourself.

The entities try to fulfill their destiny (to return to their spirit siblings) and thus sabotage Ada’s attempts to live a human life with minimal suffering. It’s a constant challenge to navigate life, until they learn to live in harmony and she understands her purpose after an encounter with a historian, who tells her what she needs to accept.

“The name that was given to you has many connotations, you hear?” He wore glasses and spoke in a rush of words. “The python’s egg means a precious child. A child of the gods, or the deity themself. The experiences you’ve had suggest that there is a spiritual connection, which you need to go and learn about. Your journey will not be complete until you do that.” He leaned back and folded his arms. “There is nothing more anybody can tell you. It’s important for you to understand your place on this earth.”

Truly an astounding, transparent work that takes an understanding of the being part of human into another dimension. The way it seamlessly moves from the material to the immaterial, combining human and spiritual aspects of selves, on a journey to assemble some way of living with them both, in a world where the majority live within and perceive only one aspect and dimension, a world indeed, where it can be dangerous to articulate this alternate reality.

I thought it was brilliant, definitely a 5 star read for me and truly deserving of being on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

A debut novel said to have an autobiographical slant, this is how Akwaeke Emezi brilliantly articulates what the writing of it meant to them in an interview with Ms. magazine:

I wrote Freshwater as an analysis of sorts—the ogbanje figuring out what it is, ascribing legibility to itself. We look at our worlds through a limited range of lenses, and making this book meant choosing a different center to tell the story from, a different lens to look through.

Once that shift was made, it came with such clarity—the world finally making sense. Being a strange thing in a human world and not knowing what you are is immensely difficult, and I think Freshwater walks us pretty intimately through what living in that space feels like.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

New Yorker: A Startling Debut Novel Explores the Freedom of Being Multiple by Katy Waldman

Interview: The Ms. Q&A: Akwaeke Emezi on Freshwater and Finding Home by Taliah Mancini

N.B. Thank you to publisher Grove Atlantic for providing a review copy.

Buy a copy of Freshwater via Book Depository

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L.McFadden

I’ve been aware of Bernice McFadden’s name as a writer I might enjoy, so when I saw her latest novel Praise Song for the Butterflies chosen as the monthly read by the Literary Fiction by People of Colour group on Goodreads, I decided to read along in February, to benefit from the opportunity to engage with other readers and to see their questions being answered by the author, about some of the choices she made while writing the book.

Interested in the inspiration for writing a novel, this one intrigued me; Bernice McFadden visited Ghana in 2007 and while she was there met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi, which they explained and suggested she write a book about, an idea she initially laughed at, but after researching the practice, a story began to emerge that she eventually pursued.

The novel is set in a fictional nation of Ukemby (avoiding comparison with the geography and customs of a specific African country), the first two pages provide a brief history of this fictional land, with its recent colonialist history, new schools, a period of outlawing African God worship or speaking local languages and their subsequent independence, freeing people to  openly practice older customs and traditions.

Shrine  slavery was one of the  traditions that ascended from the darkness back into the light.

A slim 3 page chapter entitled AFTER New York City 2009,  sets the reader on edge wondering what happened to lead to that collision of events, as the first provocative sentence opens with:

On the morning of the day she killed him, the sun sat high and white in a sky washed clean of clouds by an early-morning downpour.

From there we move into BEFORE, Port Masi, Ukemby  1978 – 1985. The novel gripped me from its opening pages and made me not want to do anything but stay with young Abeo as if to hasten her escape from the wretched situation superstition put her in.

We know from the blurb that she is going to be sacrificed by her father, under pressure from his mother, to atone for a curse believed to have been passed down from their ancestors.  Until that moment, it seems impossible, given the early success and education of her parents, I read those initial pages, wondering what it could be that changed the good fortune of this happy family.

When Aunt Serafine comes to visit from New York, the family take a trip across the border to Ghana, and visit the slave castle. After debating whether or not it is appropriate to take young Abeo, her mother relents and she joins them. A sense of foreboding lurks as they descend into the dark interior of the castle, her imagination running rife.

What struck fear into her young heart  was the history that lay beyond the wooden panels and brass hardware. Morris had revived history and little Abeo was finding it hard to distinguish between the now and what had been.  Morris reached for the door handle and Abeo’s breath caught in her throat.  She ordered her eyes to close, but they refused, and so she  braced herself for the vision of the ship bobbing on the ocean, its deck teeming with shackled cargo.

Elmina, Slave Castle, Ghana

It’s when things go wrong, when the family’s luck changes and the son comes under the undue influence of his mother (I recall this similarly in Ayobami Adebayo’s excellent Stay With Me ) that relationships get tested, families risk disintegrating and wives become disempowered.

When Abeo’s family falls on hard times, her father, in his desperation begins to doubt himself and the system that should bring justice. Instead he is lead to follow the old ways, thinking it will bring him peace of mind. In an impulsive moment, seized by and giving in to terror, he does the unthinkable, delivering his daughter to a religious shrine.

It was 1985; Abeo was nine years, seven months and three days old.

I worried the story was going to depict brutality, especially after recently reading House of Stone, where Novuyo Rosa Tshuma exposes the reader to the graphic horror of Gukurahundi, in newly independent Zimbabwe, however I was relieved to discover that McFadden spares us the terror if not the cruelty, we imagine what happened, though thankfully there’s no visceral portrayal. One reader asked why she chose to spare readers this, suggesting her method was more like leading a reader by the hand to the truth rather than holding them by the head to something too awful to take in.

In my earlier works I was much more graphic with my descriptions of horrific events. I think pulling back from that had much to do with me seeing so much violence against Black people on the news and social media platforms. Subjecting my character, myself or the reader didn’t seem to serve anyone involved.

Interested in the title, I looked up ‘Praise Song’ and learned it is one of the most widely used poetic forms in African literature; described as ‘a series of laudatory epithets applied to gods, men, animals, plants, and towns that capture the essence of the object being praised’.

It becomes a form of metaphor, the butterfly a symbol of transformation and rebirth;  in the novel Duma, the oldest of the priest’s sons rips a newspaper to shreds, intending to ignore what has been read inside it, the pieces are picked up by a gust of wind, catching the girls’ eyes, seen as butterflies. Though an illusion, it signifies a turning point, a sign of hope, of liberation, they are experiencing life in one form and soon will transform.

Duma folded the newspaper and looked directly into his father’s milky eyes. “It means the government has outlawed what we do here, . It means no more trokosi.

Abeo glanced up and for one fleeting moment her spirit soared. Indeed, at that distance, the bits of newspaper did appear to be a cluster of white butterflies. Abeo watched until the air went still and the false butterflies dropped out of sight.

It was 1998 and Abeo was twenty-two years old, eight months and seventeen days old.

The characters are well depicted, the surroundings set the reader’s imagination alight, we’re taken on a journey, introduced to a terrifying ritual that morphs into another form of traditional domination, however there are shining lights, hope has been gifted a role to play and Abeo has been permitted to interact with it.

I loved the natural, gifted storytelling of this novel, the historical exploration and psychological insight and in particular that she was able to create a scenario that showed us what a healing transformation might look like in the form of resilience.

Bernice McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters and The Book of Harlan (winner of American Book Award and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction). A four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

This is a story of survival and triumph.  I want people to understand that their circumstances don’t always, and shouldn’t always, define their entire lives.

Further Reading

Ancestral Roots:  Bernice L. McFadden sings an enslaved black woman’s song, Interview by Evette Dione

“The interest is not the fact of slavery, the interest is what happens internally, emotionally, psychologically, when you are in fact enslaved and what you do in order to transcend that circumstance.” Toni Morrison

Have you read any novels by Bernice McFadden? Do you have a favourite?

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (2018) Zimbabwe

Bukhosi, 17 years old, has gone missing. His father, Abed, and his mother, Agnes, cling to the hope that he has run away rather than been murdered by government thugs, but only the lodger seems to have any idea. Zamani has lived in the spare room for years now. Quiet, polite, well-read and well-heeled, he’s almost part of the family – but almost isn’t quite good enough for Zamani.

Cajoling, coaxing and coercing Abed and Agnes into revealing their sometimes tender, often brutal life stories, Zamani aims to steep himself in borrowed family history, so that he can fully inherit and inhabit its uncertain future.

House of Stone is a novel in three parts, Book One centres around Zamani’s determination to befriend his landlord Abed, accompanying him in his misery as he searches for his son, applying subtle, manipulative, and ultimately devastating pressure on him, prising Abed’s family history open, in order to find a way in. In Book Two his focus is on converting Mama Agnes and the final slim Book Three are a series of revelations.

We know from the opening pages that Zamani and Bukhosi were together when he disappeared, along with their friend and mentor Dumo, though nothing of what we know is ever shared with Abed and Agnes.

I’m the one who’s survived and he’s the one who’s disappeared, thanks to those mad antics of his. Poof! Like a spoko. He too was gobbled up by one of those police vans the day of the Mthwakzi rally, and has not been regurgitated since.

Like Bukhosi, I doubt I’ll ever see Dumo again. It was he who taught me that a man could remake himself by remaking his past. So when Abednego said I was like a son to him and that he would, from then on, call me his surrogate son, I felt a swell of pride and the prick of opportunity. Perhaps, as my surrogate father’s son, I can be blessed with sole familial affection and, in this way, finally powder away the horrors of my own murky hi-story bequeathed to me by parents I never knew.

As he draws the personal and family history out of Abed and Agnes, we traverse 50 tumultuous years in the region, years Abed would prefer not to remember, they contain his happiest and most traumatic memories, as the country witnesses the death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe.

It’s a discomforting read, the author doesn’t hold back with the detail, some scenes come at you so quickly, you don’t have time to look away. In that respect I remembered the visceral detail of a novel I couldn’t finish, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Somehow, despite those scenes, I was able to continue with this book, but I was put into a state of literary vigilance for much of it, which wasn’t always comfortable. Humanity showed itself to be unpredictable and despicable in its newfound possession of unregulated power. It was a bittersweet victory that saw the introduction of a despot leader and made an entire population feel unsafe.

One of the periods we are taken back to was the Gukurahundi, (a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987. It derives from a Shona language term which loosely translates to “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”). I hadn’t heard of this term, and in the novel the younger generation hadn’t either. Zamani pressures Abed to tell him:

Isn’t this the hi-story Bukhosi always wanted to know, before he went missing? For which he got a beating whenever he asked our father ‘Baba, what happened in the ’80s, what was the Gukurahundi?

That was the Gukurahundi, Bukhosi. It was the lead rain of our new country, Zimbabwe, sent to wash away us, the chaff. It was the state-sponsored murder of twenty thousand of your kin. How was our father to tell you that? How was he to tell you that within that number were the only two people he ever really loved?

On reading this, I was compelled to look it up, it’s not a story you want to linger on, nor are they images you want to see. You don’t have to read far to learn that none of the perpetrators have been held accountable for the atrocities committed. Those implicated include many who became or are now senior political figures in the Zimbabwean government.

In an interview, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma when asked about setting her novel amidst the backdrop of this massacre, said:

“We speak about the Liberation War all the time. But when it comes to the genocide, it is always a matter of shutting it down,” she says, adding that by not addressing the psychological, social and communal issues, by not acknowledging people have died, healing cannot begin.

House of Stone “dzimba dza mabwe” or “Zimbabwe” in Shona comes from her personal quest to learn more about that dark spot in modern Zimbabwean history, the ethnic cleansing/genocide carried out against the Ndebele people in the early 1980s after the liberation struggle. The strengths of her characters come from an immersion into reading first hand personal accounts of people who survived that period, works that are not available in Zimbabwe, that she was able to access from the Iowa University library when she was studying her MFA.

Interested in the question of whether it is possible for a person, or a nation to rewrite itself, it will become the central motive of her flawed protagonist Zamani and finds that present day Zimbabwe has some parallels. Since the political coup that recently ousted Robert Mugabe, a new President has announced to the population that the past is dead.

When Tshuma began asking questions about the Gukurahundi of her immediate family, including her mother and Uncle, they were visibly upset – people continue to be haunted, they haven’t found closure for the dead, nor been able to process their experiences to heal from them.

I was reminded of the experience of reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, a powerful novel that centered around the little known Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980, that she discovered by accident and became haunted by. It left her with pressing questions she explored through the novel.

Despite the traumatic events that haunt or affect every character, the plot of House of Stone moves swiftly with its well fleshed out characters, sense of mystery, its rage, outrage and her own brand of wit – including the hypocritical Reverend who Zamani doesn’t trust.

Did that Reverend Nobody really think he could take me on? Did he really think he could come out as the hero in all of this, mooching off my hard work, destroying my relations with my surrogate family.

It’s an accomplished novel that confronts harsh truths and pursues questions about the reinvention of a nation and the individual. A gifted storyteller who has been able to weave the essence of those personal narratives into richly formed characters that goes some way towards acknowledging a history no-one will talk about. Bereft of redemption, a feeling that pervades the narrative and one that seems to hold many in its grip today worldwide.

The interview below provides an interesting addition to the reading experience, exploring the fictitious and the personal – in particular given that some of the perpetrators of those traumatic events still hold positions of power today.

Further Reading/Listening:

rFi The World And All Its Voices: Honoring those who lived through Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel, House of Stone

Review:  Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers

Buy a Copy via Book Depository

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I came across this promising book on a Goodreads group called 500 Great Books by Women  a reference to a book published in 1994 that lists works by women considered notable and influential under different themes such as Art, Heritage, Identity, Ethics, Conflicting Cultures, Choices, Growing Old, Growing Up, Power and more.

The group also includes a list developed from a similar compilation called Daughters of Africa by Margaret Busby an anthology of words and writings by women of African descent, with titles from the 1830’s to 1990.

In an effort to read more widely, writers from different countries and cultures, and in particular the lesser known great books from women, it’s a fabulous resource and members of Goodreads, if they’ve read and reviewed any of these books provide links to their comments/thoughts on them, helpful in discerning whether a book is of interest.

Nervous Conditions was written by the Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga in 1988, it was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. It was awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1989 and has been translated into a number of languages. It is recognized as a major literary contribution to African feminism and postcolonial literature.

If that wasn’t enough of a promise of something rewarding, this quote in the excellent foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah confirmed it.

“Each novel is a message in a bottle cast into the great ocean of literature from somewhere else (even if it was written and published last week in your home town); and what makes the novel available to its readers is not shared values or beliefs or experiences but the human capacity to conjure new worlds in the imagination.”

I thought it was absolutely brilliant, one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in my cross cultural journey, portrayed with such raw honesty, I’m in awe and immensely relieved there is another book to follow, because I’m not ready to leave it there.

It’s a coming of age story of Tambu, a teenage girl, who in the beginning lives in a small village with her parents and siblings and their days are hard, especially the women, who work in the fields all day, do the laundry at the river, transport water to and fro and cook in a kitchen that lacks modern conveniences and requires skill and tenacity to manage. Despite the hard work Tambu loves her village and even the work and chores equally provide moments of pleasure and companionship.

Her Aunt and Uncle return from five years in England furthering their education so he can become headmaster of the mission school. Tambu is disappointed that her cousin isn’t as friendly towards her as she once was, the “Englishness” has changed her cousins. Her brother is offered the opportunity of an education where her Uncle is headmaster.

It had been my uncle’s idea that Nhamo should go to school at the mission. Nhamo, if given the chance, my uncle said, would distinguish himself academically, at least sufficiently to enter a decent profession. With the money earned this way, my uncle said, Nhamo would lift our branch of the family out of the squalor in which we were living.

Tambu forced to quit her education for financial reasons, sets about implementing a plan to earn her own school fees, determined that she shall rise up too. She appears to have the best of both worlds, the grounding, practical, connected upbringing of village life, a work ethic, practical skills in the kitchen and a tenacity that purchased her an extended education, growing her own crop and finding someone to help her sell it, despite efforts by her brother to sabotage her intention and her parents complete lack of faith in her ability to succeed.

Thus she too sets off on the path of an education informed by “English influences” though she retains deep family and village values. However, being around and observing her cousin and how her behaviour has changed, and becoming aware of the frustrated ambitions of her aunt, her world view begins to shift , despite dedicating herself to being the most diligent pupil and the most respectful niece possible.

The subtle way her character transitions to greater awareness is adeptly portrayed, her feelings of ambition and regret as she realises it may be impossible to achieve all that she aspires to without losing something of what she had. She observes her cousin rebel and then accept that middle ground, fall victim to it, unable to go back to who she was, becoming alienated from her own, entering into self-destructive territory.

All her characters are multi dimensional, portrayed in a way that even though they inflict suffering on one another, we are made to understand their point of view and realise the dilemmas and complexities they face. There are no villains, or heroes, just humans trying to improve their lot or that of others, sometimes making significant achievements, and at other times grave mistakes.

In an interview the author was asked why she was so generous to her characters, giving them this chance to explain or be explained, she responded:

I employ this strategy so that many different categories of people can find something to identify within the book – also because the situation of the characters is very complex.  One can hold a person responsible for reacting to a situation in a certain way, but the situation that exerted the pressure to behave in that way must also be addressed.

I’m so glad I’ve read this early on, so I can get to the next two books in the trilogy The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.Have you read this modern classic or any other books by Zimbabwean authors?

Buy a Copy via BookDepository

Top Reads of 2018

Top Reads of 2018

A Few Reading Statistics

Goodreads Statistics

In 2018 I read 47 books, just under one book a week. Three quarters of them were by women authors and 25% by men. 76% of the books were fiction and 24% non-fiction (poetry, essays, memoir, spiritual).

I like literature from around the world, I read authors from 18 different countries, including Argentina, Taiwan, Uganda, Senegal, India, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Burundi, NZ, Australia and Ireland.

Despite this apparent diversity, half the books I read were by British or American authors, an imbalance I hope to address through more conscious reading in 2019.

It requires more of an effort to find books from other countries that fit my reading inclination, but I will continue to have that as my lead reading intention.  I read 12 books translated from other languages (23%) and I read one in the original French language. 80% of the books I read were physical books and 20% were e-books.

Although I read so many books from the US/UK, as I consider those stories that stood out for me, I find they are predominantly narratives from elsewhere recounting tales of experience and perspective other than the anglo-american one.

Outstanding Read of 2018

Again, my outstanding read of the year came early in the year, one of the most underrated novels of the year, that should have been given more attention, in my opinion.

The historical novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is set in 1700’s Buganda ( the largest of the traditional kingdoms in present-day Uganda, comprising all of Uganda’s Central Region, including the capital Kampala) and modern Uganda.

Kintu is a family name, the thread that runs through the six parts that make up the story, beginning with a curse put on the family name and following it throughout the years and generations. It is a combination of excellent storytelling and insight into a culture, its beliefs and traditions. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

It’s brilliant. We traverse through the lives of these families, witness their growth, development, sadness’s and joys, weaving threads of their connections together, that will eventually intersect and come to be understood and embraced by all as the clan is brought together to try to resolve the burden of the long-held curse that had cast its long shadow over this clan for so many generations.

Top Reads 2018

In no particular order here are the other books that made a significant impression and have stayed with me throughout the year, click on the title to read my review, or the book cover image to purchase a copy:

Petit Pays by Gaël Faye  was the one book I read in it’s original language (French) but which I classify as coming from the Republic of Burundi, where the story takes place. It’s a short novel with a significant impact, that has since been translated into English as Small Country’. It is the story told from the perspective of an 11 year old boy, the son of a French father and Rwandan mother in the year of his life when everything changed. It’s a novel of cultural differences, of being an outsider, of trying to belong, of understanding the motivations and fears of people, of life at the intersection of those things, of having to choose sides. From my review:

It is beautifully told, a simple story to follow, with many beautiful, descriptive passages, even though we know that this time will be short-lived. It opens our eyes to the tensions that escalate into hatred and violence with little sense, the many victims and the many wounded by loss, destroyed by it.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas was the shortest novel I read, and the only epistolary novel, but it was one that had a significant impact, as timeless classics are warrant to do. It’s a brilliant and unforgettable story narrated through a letter by a middle age Senegalese widow writing to her friend who is about to visit. It contains more than she is able to say face to face, an uninterrupted discourse, as letters always must be, the recipient forced to read until the end, the narrator never interrupted, the message allowed to gain momentum and arrive at it’s intended conclusion.

Throughout the narrative she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children and to those who have supported her, including the friend due to arrive, who chose a different path when she was confronted with similar issues to that which the widow is now facing. It’s absolutely brilliant, highly recommended. From my review:

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

Mend the Living or The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal, different titles and translators for the UK and US editions, I read the UK version translated from French by Jessica Moore. This is an extraordinary and original novel that follows a young man’s heart from its healthy teenage introduction through to its successful transplant into a patient waiting for a donor. Rather than focus on the medical procedure, it highlights all the characters involved and connected to the journey of this heart, from the parents of the boy, to the female intern, demonstrating the changing perspectives of all those touched by these sets of events.  From my review:

This is one of those novels that unleashes the mind and sends it off in all kinds of directions, thinking about the impact events have on so many lives, the different callings people have, the incredible developments in medical science, how little we really know and yet how some do seem to know intuitively and can act in ways that restores our faith in humanity.

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi tr. Tina Kover was another translated work of fiction I read in August during #WIT(Women in Translation) month. Translated from French where the author now lives, it is a dual narrative, set in present day France, where a woman sits in a fertility clinic thinking back over her life, both in the present (daughter of parents exiled from their native country and culture Iran) and the past, her own childhood, what she remembers of the circumstances that lead them away from their home and right back to her great-grandfather and his harem of 52 wives.

Spanning a changing, turbulent time in Iranian history, it travels the highs and lows, for while the passionate intellectual freely expresses their opinion and brings no harm, they can continue to live within their culture, family, an active part of society. But when freedom of expression endangers the individual, the sacrifices that must be made stifle and silence them and doesn’t necessarily ensure their safety. Life in exile, without connections to friends, family and like-minded neighbours, reduces them to shadows of their former existence, unable to truly be themselves, to be seen, in a foreign culture. From my review:

I absolutely loved it, I liked the slow drip revelation of what this young woman’s life had become, having been severed from her country and community of origin and the colourful, abundant richness of the family history and culture, which while separate from her life today, existed somewhere deep in her psyche, in her genes, and in those non-genetic aspects we inherit from previous generations even without knowledge of what has passed.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne is a book I bought for my brother last Christmas, so I decided to read it myself early in the New Year, so we could discuss it. It was on a lot of top reads lists for 2017, and deservedly so. It’s the story of the life of Cyril, from the circumstances of his birth and adoption in conservative Ireland through four periods of his life, including time in Amsterdam and New York before his return to Ireland. Cyril encounters many challenges in his life, many of them as a result of failing to live up to perceived societal expectations. From my review:

Boyne peels back the layers of Irish inclinations and attitudes in the 20th century and shows how destructive this closed mindedness is on the lives of anyone who crosses an imaginary line of acceptable ‘being’. This astonishing novel is a courageous, honest attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations, against our own nature’s can be so harmful to so many and it makes us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme.

Little by Edward Carey is another outstanding and original work of historical fiction and a book that left a deep impression, not just for the excellent storytelling and illustrations, but because it tells the story of a woman everyone had heard of yet knew nothing about, she was a trailblazer extraordinaire. Her name as most of us know it today is an illusion, for it tells nothing of the full life she lived before she became Madame Tussaud.

It is the story of the incredible life and survival of a servant girl Anne Marie Grosholt who lost her parents at a very young age and through a series of serendipitious connections, came to be apprenticed to a Swiss medical wax sculptor, whose popularity lead him to flee to Paris, where he resided with the widow of a tailor, another set of skills the young servant girl would acquire, before a chance encounter resulted in her spending eleven years in the palace of Versailles as tutor (Maitresse de Cire) to the princess, until her confidence and boredom combined to get her in trouble, banished back to the widow and her master.

The novel tracks her life and beside it the growing unrest in Paris, as the people rebel against those who ‘have’, against those who ‘rule’, and a frenzy of imprisonments and executions pervade the city, where no one is safe from denunciation and possible death. These stories and the historical references bring the novel alive, in animated prose that explores the noble alongside the grim and ghoulish, for the public of the time desired to see and know it all.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife    This is an incredible work of creativity, a writer working through the post-trauma of domestic violence, living through and escaping an abusive marriage, using her writing to narrate the story of her marriage, seeing it as if she is playing a role in a drama. I avoided this title for a while until it was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and started to receive enticing reviews. It is a ‘tour de force’ and well worth overcoming any inhibitions you might have about reading it.

And in some ways, that is how I think of it: it is easier to imagine this life in which I’m trapped as a film;  it is easier when I imagine myself as a character. It makes everything around me seem less frightening; my experiences at a remove. Less painful, less permanent. Here, long before I ever faced a camera, I became an actress.

The Four Insights – Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers by Alberto Villoldo I couldn’t write about my top reads without mentioning Alberto Villoldo, as I read three of his books this year and loved them all, but this one was the best and was the first I read, because it gives the background and explanations behind the philosophy of shamanic energy medicine in an accessible way.

I absolutely loved it and all its insights, I was familiar with the shamanic levels of perception, of serpent, jaguar, hummingbird, eagle, corresponding to body, mind, soul, spirit and their associated languages. The book expands on those themes and provides deeper explanations of how we perceive at each of these levels, what we need to understand about how we are responsible for creating the reality of each of those levels, and that we can only change our own inner perception and try to uplevel, we can never change another’s perception, except through being the role model that they might perceive and respond to without influence.

And that’s it for 2019, did you have an outstanding read for the year? Or a few? Let me know in the comments below what your favourite(s) were.

Thanks for reading and following and commenting and happy reading to you all for the year ahead.

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

When I look back at my absolute favourite book of the year in recent years, there is a common theme running in which an author has written a story that comes from deep within their cultural heritage; it’s there in my favourite book of 2017 Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book that reaches back to the author’s Ghanaian heritage, in Simone Schwartz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond and in Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother. It’s even there in Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child.

This is what appealed to me immediately about the prospect of reading Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu. It promises to do the same thing, to take the reader from where we are at today in a culture and link it back to the past, from modern day Uganda to the era of when the region was ruled as a kingdom. And it succeeds brilliantly, in a way rarely seen in literature in the UK/US published today.

Kintu was discovered when a project called Kwani? launched a manuscript competition in 2012 to discover the best unpublished novels  by writers from across Africa, and to publish them for readers there. Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s excellent Stay With Me, was one of seven manuscripts shortlisted, it also went on to make the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.

About the Kwani? project, one of the judges, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey said:

What we looked for as judges were manuscripts that told stories from the inside without the burden of focusing on how an imagined ‘West’ would view them.

As a result of winning that prize Kintu was published by Kwani Trust (in Kenya) before being offered to international publishers. It was published in the US (Transit Books) and the UK (One World Publications) and in March 2018 Jennifer Makumbi learned she was a recipient of a prestigious Windham Campbell Prize for Literature worth US$165,000. She is working on her second novel.

My Review:

1750 Buddu Province, Buganda

Kintu is the name of a clan, the original clan elder Kintu Kidda fell in love with Nnakato, an identical twin (the younger) and her family refuse to allow him to marry her unless he married her sister Babirye first. He refused. They resisted. He relented.

Kintu’s mind lingered on the primal conflict that led to a soul splitting into twins. No matter how he looked at it, life was tragic. If the soul is at conflict even at this remotest level of existence, what chance do communities have? This made the Ganda custom of marrying female identical twins to the same man preposterous. It goes against their very nature, Kintu thought. Twins split because they cannot be one, why keep them as such in life? Besides, identical men did not marry the same woman.

Babirye gave him four sets of twins while Nnakato was unable to conceive. When the twins, raised as if they belonged to Nnakto were adults, Nnakato finally gave birth to a son Baale. They adopted a baby boy Kalema, from Ntwire a widower who was passing through their lands, who decided to stay in gratitude to Kintu and Nnakto for raising his son in their family.

When tragedy occurs, Kintu tries to conceal it, Ntwire suspects something and places a curse on Kintu, his family and their future descendants.

The novel is structured into Book One to Book Six, the first five books focus on different strands of the Kintu clan, the first book being the original story of Kintu Kidda and his family in the 1700’s (pre-colonial era) and the latter stories are set in modern times, colonial interlopers have left their imprint, however this is not their story nor a story of their influence, except to note the impact on the kingdom.

After independence, Uganda – a European artefact – was still forming as a country rather than a kingdom in the minds of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabuku Mutees II was made president of the new Uganda. Nonetheless, most of them felt that ‘Uganda’ should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kubuka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were now Ugandans. Their histories, cultures and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them. But to the Ganda, the reality of Uganda as opposed to Buganda only sank in when, after independence, Obote overran the kabuka’s lubiri with tanks, exiling Muteesa and banning all kingdoms. The desecration of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.

Each beginning of the six parts/books however narrates over a few pages, something of the story of a man named Kamu Kintu, who is seized from his home, hands tied behind his back and taken away for questioning by a group of local councillors. Overhearing someone mutter the word thief, an angry mob of villagers menace him without knowledge of the reason for his being detained and he is killed, left for dead on the road, the men who’d requested he come with them fleeing. What subsequently happens to every one of those councillors is equally mysterious, creating a thread of mystery that both links and separates the family stories that make up the novel.

We don’t find out who Kamu Kintu is or how he is connected to the families we encounter in each part, until Book Six, where the threads that tie the clan together begin to connect in the enthralling homecoming.

Throughout each family and over the years certain aspects replicate throughout the families, the presence of twins, premature death, as if the curse that was muttered so long ago continues to reverberate through each generation. Some of them are aware of the curse, remembering the story told by their grandmothers, others haven’t been told the truth of their origins, in the hope that ignorance might absolve them.

Her grandmother’s story had intruded on her again. All day at work, the story, like an incessant song, had kept coming and going. Now that she was on her way home, Suubi gave in and her grandmother’s voice flooded her mind.

Some are haunted by ghosts of the past, thinking themselves not of sound mind, particularly when aspects of their childhood have been hidden from them, some have prophetic dreams, some have had a foreign university education and try to sever their connections to the old ways, though continue to be haunted by omens and symbols, making it difficult to ignore what they feel within themselves, that their mind wishes to reject. Some turn to God and the Awakened, looking for salvation in newly acquired religions.

It’s brilliant. We traverse through the lives of these families, witness their growth, development, sadness’ and joys, weaving threads of their connections together, that will eventually intersect and come to be understood and embraced by all as the clan is brought together to try to resolve the burden of the long-held curse that may have cast its long shadow over this clan for so many generations.

One of the things that’s particularly unique about the novel, is the contrast of the historical era, 1750’s with the modern era, the historical part shows the unique way of life before the arrival of Europeans, in all its richness and detail, how they live, the power structures, the preparation for the long journey to acknowledge a new leader, the protocols they must adhere to, the landscapes they traverse. An article in The Guardian notes twin historical omissions and concludes that the novel is the better for it:

Makumbi mostly avoids describing both the colonial period, which so often seems the obligation of the historical African novel, and Idi Amin’s reign, which seems the obligation of the Ugandan novel. Kintu is better for not retreading this worn ground.

It reminded me of the world recreated by the Guadeloupean-French-African writer, Maryse Condé, in her epic historical novel Segu, another African masterpiece, set in the 1700’s in the kingdom of Segu.

I hope the success of Kintu encourages other young writers from within the vast storytelling traditions of the many African countries to continue to tell their stories and that international publishers continue to make them available to the wider reading public, who are indeed interested in these lives, cultures, histories and belief systems of old that continue to resonate in the modern-day, despite political policies and power regimes that seem to want to change them.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Image from Martin Harris Centre via BrittlePaper.com

Further Reading

Brittle Paper: Essay – When We Talk about Kintu by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey

Africa In Words: Review – Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s ‘Kintu’ Made Me Want to Tell Our Stories by Nyana Kakoma

The East African: Article – Kintu’s ‘Africaness’ pays off for Jennifer Makumbi by Bamutaraki Musinguzi

The Guardian: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi review – is this ‘the great Ugandan novel’? by Lesley Nneka Arimah

 

Buy a copy of Kintu via BookDepository

Note: Thank you to the UK Publisher One World Publications for sending me a copy of the book.

So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

An excellent Sunday afternoon read and pertinent to much that is being written and read in the media under the banner of the silencing of women today.

This short, articulate novella is a conversation, in the form of a lengthy letter from a widow to her best friend, whom she hasn’t seen for some years, but who is arriving tomorrow. It is set in Senegal, was originally written and published in French in 1980 and in English in 1981, the year in which the author died tragically of a long illness.

Our recent widow is reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, how she is unable to detach from memories of better times in the past, during those 25 years where she was happily married and the only wife of her husband, thoughts interrupted by the more bitter, heart-breaking recent years where she was abandoned by him for the best friend of her daughter, a young woman, who traded the magic of youth for the allure of shiny things (with the exception of his silver-grey streaks, which he in turn trades in for the black dye of those in denial of the ageing process).

With his death, she must sit beside this young wife, have her inside her home for the funeral, in accordance with tradition. She is irritated by this necessity.

Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

By turn she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children; to those who have supported her, her friends; including this endearing one about to arrive; she thinks too of the burden of responsibility of all women.

And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!

It is a lament, a paradox of feelings, a resentment of tradition, a wonder at those like her more liberated and courageous friend, who in protest at her own unfair treatment (a disapproving mother-in-law interferes – reminding me of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me), took the road less travelled, taking her four sons, arming herself with renewed higher education and an enviable career abroad.

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

Ultimately, she posits, it is only love that can heal, that can engender peace and harmony and the success of family is born of the couple’s harmony, as the nation depends inevitably on the family.

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar to an educated and well-off family, her father was Minister of Health, her grandfather a translator in the occupying French regime. After the premature death of her mother, she was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents.

She was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life, her schooling and subsequent experiences as a wife, mother and friend.

Her contribution is considered important in modern African studies as she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. She believed in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for  society.

It’s an excellent short read and an excellent account from the inside of a polygamous society, highlighting the important role women already have and the greater one they could embrace if men and women were to give greater respect to the couple, the family, or at least to exit it with greater respect than this model implies.