Ivory Coast Côte d'Ivoire, West AfricaAuthor: Marguerite Abouet (& Clement Oubrerie)Review: Yes, yes, another coming of age novel. But I had to think about this one, because (a) it's not All About Me, and (b) it's a graphic novel. It's about three young women in the Ivory Coast Côte d'Ivoire of the 1970s, three fairly ordinary young women in a working class neighbourhood (Yopougon), who are having the usual teenage girl-issues, like school and boys and what to do with what's going on between their legs. It's called Aya, and that's the main character -- or rather the narrator -- but as Aya's a pretty dull person really (at least at this point in her life -- she's studying too hard to generate any real drama in her life) the story really focusses on the actions of her two friends Bintou and Adjoua.Comment: All the reviews about this book, as well as the preface, make a point of talking about the ordinariness of the story, the lack of violence and abjectness in the background, the total unAfricanness of the story (because nobody dies, no government topples, and nobody starves). To do the same thing would justify that stance and underline the idea that what happens in Africa must be very very bad. Everyone makes the point of saying that Ivory Coast Côte d'Ivoire was an exemplary African nation in the 1970s, etc, etc, rather the way Alexander McCall Smith keeps reminding us that Botswana is an exemplary African nation in the 2000s. It's the postcolonial version of the Dark Continent myth. I don't buy it, so I won't say it. But for people expecting fireworks and drama in this graphic novel, and who approach it the way they might approach, say, Speigelman's Maus, forget it. Think Archie, Betty and Veronica -- only all grown up.
Country: Nigeria, West AfricaAuthor: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Review: Perhaps it's typical of novels from the African and Caribbean diaspora, but I find often that authors' first novels are coming-of-age stories. (It's one of the things that's turned me off reading novels from my own region, and equally, what's stopped me writing The Big One.) But that's an aside; I'm here to talk about Adichie's first novel, Purple Hibiscus.So all right, it's a coming-of-age story. But it didn't turn me off! On the contrary, it's so well done, so carefully drawn, so non-solipsistic that it won me over.The narrator is a fourteen-year-old girl whose father is a Big Man in her community -- owner of a local factory, publisher of the only newspaper that dares to be critical of the government, fierce Roman Catholic convert, pillar of the community, a local hero who (like Achebe's Okonkwo) cannot bend but must break, or be broken, instead. The father is a domestic tyrant who teaches his lessons with pain, who punishes his family with specific physical torments, and who has no tolerance for anything other than the way he has chosen for himself. He is distanced from his own father, who has refused to abandon his traditions, and has an uneasy relationship with his sister, who has made peace with both the old way and the new, and is able to chart a specifically African course, balancing her life between the traditional and the contemporary, and finding a very Nigerian interpretation of Christianity. The narrator and her brother live sheltered lives until they go to visit this aunt, a poor professor in a university town, and their experiences with her and her family form the catalyst that brings the story to its turning point.Adichie's style is spare and clean (is this a 21st century phenomenon?), and deceptively simple. It's in keeping, in its female, 21st century way, with the trend Achebe set with Things Fall Apart, limpid language revealing subtext. And the subtext is rich: domestic abuse, the challenges of living in independent Nigeria, the challenges of remaining uncorrupted, the poverty and marginalization of intellectuals, the casual violence of everyday life. From the fervent church services and the generosity of the father to the poor to the scar on Kevin-the-chauffeur's neck and the polishing of the mother's figurines, the gulf between the public persona and the private life is too large to be crossed, until.Comments: I ran across Adichie on Zoetrope and am glad I finally read her book. I'd read more by her for sure.
No, I haven't forgotten it. Have you?Here's my update. I took books, as I said, to Guyana to read. That was optimistic; I didn't get the chance while on the ground, though I did read small bits of Purple Hibiscus in the bath once or twice. I also didn't get the chance to attend Karen King-Aribisala's reading, much to my regret, as I know Karen personally, having attending the 1992 Caribbean Writer's Workshop with her (and Edwidge Danticat and Garfield Ellis and Geoffrey Philp -- time, hey, for me to get my behind published like my peers, huh?) Karen, if you ever chance to read this, please please accept my apologies, and start saving -- CARIFESTA's here in The Bahamas next time.I will be posting reviews -- I finished two more books -- over the next week or so.Cheers.
So I've taken the books I hope to finish with me to Guyana.The one I'm reading now is Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. In short, I'm enjoying it so far. I cheated and skimmed forward -- I do that sometimes -- but now I have to read on, savour it.Watch this space -- I plan to blog about it soon.
Country: Morocco, North AfricaAuthor: Laila LalamiReview: This is a novel/collection of related short stories, and in this way reminds me of Naipaul's Miguel Street. The stories are about four Moroccans who take the risk of crossing the narrow straits between Morocco and Spain, and are separated into two main sections: "Before" and "After". The book grew on me; to be honest, I was not hooked by the prologue until I'd read the whole thing. By the end, though, I was sorry to finish the book.Lalami's style is clean and spare, and her four characters rise off the page and we care. Each of the characters gets two full stories, a "Before" story and an "After" story, and the prologue tells the climax -- the moment when they cross the straits and succeed, or fail, to make it to another life. One of the characters -- a man with an English degree, a voracious reader of American literature -- gets three; it's his POV in the prologue. By the end, the short stories lock together in a single whole, and the novel is there -- its protagonist is The Immigrant, and its resolution is variable.There were a couple of bits that stand out. One of my favourite stories in the collection, the first one after the prologue, "The Fanatic", is told from the POV of a character who never recurs. He sees, and affects the life of, one of the immigrants, someone whose story is told in the second part of the book. I suspect that it's a weakness, especially if the stories form a novel, but on its own it's very fine. Of course it is. It was shortlisted for the Caine Prize -- the African Booker.I imagine that for others part of the allure of this collection is the fact that it's rooted in Islam, which is the religion du jour for many Western literati, and that the characters do not conform to the expected stereotypes. Only one of them is particularly religious; the rest behave remarkably like people (warning: sarcasm intended).Comment: I've not read any North African literature proper, other than Camus, which masquerades as French literature, and Gide, who's an expatriate anyway. I keep meaning to read Mahfouz but haven't managed yet. My North African exposure is narrow. Lalami's a welcome change from that.I've been following her work for some time now. I came across her blog, oh, sometime back in 2005 maybe, before Hope was published, and have often intended to read the book. I'm not disappointed I finally did.
If I take part, that is.What's under my belt is pretty male and middle-century, and so I thought I'd branch out with some female voices and writing from more recent times
- Adichie (Nigeria) - Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun
- Emecheta (Nigeria) - The Joys of Motherhood
- Ngugi (Kenya) - Wizard of the Crow
- Baingana (Uganda) - Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe
- Lalami (Morocco) - Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
- Gourevitch (Rwanda) - We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with our Families
- Ilibagiza (Rwanda) - Left to Tell