Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

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“No one asks to be born, to be black or white or any color in between and yet the identity a person is born into becomes the hardest to explain to the world”

Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, first published by Chatto & Windus

Year: 2015

I first read Why Radio DJs Are Superstars in Lagos, a short story and novel in progress from the Africa39 collection in 2015. A few weeks ago, while I had my face buried in Blackass (no pun intended) I had a feeling of déjà vu and later recalled that I had really read that part of the book in the short story collection. It was like completing a puzzle and I remembered how I had promised myself to get the full novel as soon as it hit the shelves. Promise kept!

Lagosian Furo Waribuko, wakes up on the morning of his job interview to find that he has transmogrified into a white man. He fears having to explain his new condition to his family and so escapes and makes his way to the interview. On his way he realises the reality of being a white face in a sea of black faces – the stares that follow him, along with the loud silence, the humming whispers and snide remarks. When he arrives at the place of the interview, people do not believe that he is really there to interview for that particular vacancy. A white man with a Nigerian name, accent and CV details that do not match the colour of his skin. The interviewer calls Furo an impostor and is unable to contain his lividity. Someone else comes to the rescue, interviews Furo and offers him an even better position.

With his transformation, Furo decides to go far from home. After meeting a writer who will later have a significant reappearance in his life, he meets the beautiful Syreeta. This woman takes him in and looks after him in every way. Furo knows where she gets the money from, how she gets it and how she can afford to spend so much on both of them. One day, he and Syreeta make an interesting discovery – although he has white skin, green eyes and red hair, his ass is ‘robustly black.’

He finally commences his job and after a bumpy start it gets better. After a few attempts of being poached (because of his colour), one particular job is too tempting and he agrees. After this agreement, he gets home to receive undesirable news from Syreeta. The decision he ends up making takes him on a path that leads him away from his dreams and back to a place he had escaped.

Igoni Barrett writes with knee-slapping humour and inexhaustible cleverness. Before you venture into the pages, the title itself is quite daring and soon as you dive into it you discover how fearless and provocative it is. Blackass draws the nature of the people of Lagos in a satirical manner, and draws to attention some of the ridiculous attitudes and beliefs they have. It is an easy and enjoyable read. This is an author who is clearly unafraid to say what he wants to say and when he does say it, it just comes out in the right measures and with just the right balance of taste.

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(Photo: Granta)

A. Igoni Barrett was born in 1979 in Port Hacourt, Nigeria. Blackass is his debut novel. He won the 2005 BBC World Service short story competition. In 2014 he was one of the writers in the Africa39 collection of short stories. He has also published a short story collection titled, Love Is Power, or Something Like That.

Woman, You Are

Woman

You are the universe in summary

All the mosaic elements

Of all that is in existence

are written beneath your flesh

You’re the walls that erect galaxies

and the fingers that mould dust into stars

 

You carry the sun on your back

And the moon on your face

Hiding light in your womb

Clasping secrets in your fists

 

You’re the author of our dialects

Bending corners of syllables

Straightening creases on our tongues

Teaching your creation how to speak

 

The curving dimensions of your form

The mountains, the seas, the waves that crash

Within confined spaces

Where time ceases to be

And all the energies that quake

From the narrow parts of his passages

Converge in the chamber between your legs

 

From the stitches of your nest

You sew the genesis of life

Threading membranes into unified patterns

That stretch into our divine bodies

 

Just as rains whisper colour into waiting soils

You cry blood into empty veins

and beat our pulses into tune

Kissing breaths into our lungs

 

You are the universe in summary

You are all that’s in existence

And you exist in all that is

You are WOMAN

Book Review: Purple Hibiscus

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Publisher: Originally by Algonquin in 2003

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“Being defiant can be a good thing sometimes,” Aunty Ifeoma said. “Defiance is like marijuana – it is not a bad thing when it is used right.” 

Kambili Achike is a fifteen-year-old, timid girl who lives under the tyranny of her father, Eugene. Eugene is a wealthy and well-respected member of the community, a devout and strict Catholic who is also an exhibitionistic philanthropist. The Achike household, consisting of Kambili’s older brother and passive mother, suffer the violence of their oppressive and fanatically religious father. She constantly lives under the fear of committing any sin or anything that her father would consider to be against his religion. The physical and mental violence is so severe to all three of them and so they live by his repressive code.

When Nigeria is rattled by a military coup, Kambili and her brother have to go live with their father’s sister, Aunt Ifeoma and her children. Aunt Ifeoma is a university lecturer with a strong character who, contrast to her brother, allows children to have freedom to speak and be themselves. It is in this house that’s full of laughter and life that Kambili and her brother break the silence in their lives. Kambili learns to open up, find her voice and discover genuine happiness. Their father falls into a period of illness. The events that follow reveal a family secret that changes their lives.

Purple Hibiscus is an impeccably written novel, set in post-colonial Nigeria, at a time when the country is facing political unrest. This unrest can also be mirrored in the personal lives of Kambili and her brother. Through their lives, the story explores issues of identity and self-discovery. Adichie’s ability to construct a symbolism of the country’s adversities through the lives of her characters, highlights her sensitivity to both human experience and to the struggles of a country seeking to rise from its past colonial hardships. She also reaches deep into the subjects of individual translations and practices of religion, and of ethnic tensions. Purple Hibiscus exceeds literary excellence by drawing attention to concerns that spread out of the borders of Nigeria and pour into the whole continent, by laying history bare and analysing real psychological shapes of individuals.

This book is great for readers who love African literature and its rich history. If you enjoy a story that reflects real human journeys and is wealthy with deep meaning, Purple Hibiscus is definitely a recommendation.

 

Purple Hibiscus is her debut novel, followed by; Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck and Americanah. Her TEDx talk, We Should All Be Feminists has also been published as a booklet. This novel has been nominated for four awards and won the awards; Hurston-Wright Legacy Award: Best Debut Fiction Category and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Best First Book (Africa and overall).  

Book Review: London, Cape Town, Joburg

“I didn’t realise then that I was about to be introduced to a South Africa that is not in the brochures…

That I was about to get a South African introduction: in black and white.” 

London

Author: Zukiswa Wanner

Publisher: Kwela Books

Year: 2014

In summer of 1994, the beginning of Martin O’Malley’s relationship with Germaine Spencer starts off with what is only a bet with her friend to get his number. Their relationship progresses; they hang out, date and end up marrying. Two years later, Germaine is pregnant and she gives birth to a son, Zuko Spencer-O’Malley. Germaine decides to quit her day job and focus on being a full-time ceramic artist. Martin’s experience of growing up as a black boy in London drives him to want to protect his son from any harm. They pay visits to his family in South Africa – his mother and his brother Liam, who was also born and raised in London.

In 1998, they move to Cape Town. In the effort of South African corporates being BEE compliant, Martin O’Malley’s educational background, experience and most of all, his skin colour land him a good job. Martin and Germaine’s eyes are soon opened to the South Africa that is different to the one they had visited in the past years. Living there reveals many things about racial issues that exist in the country, despite the promise of democracy that the 1994 elections made. However, Germaine’s career is going well and she opens a studio in the township where she starts a community-based organisation aimed at empowering women of previously disadvantaged background. She also faces her own challenges as a white person in a black community.

Zuko forms a strong bond with his uncle Liam who’s divorced and has twins he hasn’t seen in a while. The details of his messy divorce are unspoken and Martin tells Germaine that he doesn’t know the full story. Liam offers his brother a position in his company and in 2008 they move to Joburg. Zuko starts writing a journal. Martin’s life is rattled by the appearance of his biological father. Despite the warnings from his mother and his wife, and their reminder that his Irish stepfather was his true father, Martin goes ahead and reconnects with him. This he later regrets and in the midst of his wife’s shouts of frustration, caused by what they’ve lost from the mess his biological father left, Zuko runs off to his uncle.

The next day he calls his father to fetch him from his uncle’s place and on the way tells him what had taken place while he was there. The last journal entry that Zuko makes before the end verifies the allegations that Liam’s ex-wife had made against him.

London, Cape Town, Joburg sketches the reality of what took place in South Africa, post-1994 and what is still happening in the country. This is especially shown more in parts of Liam’s character and dialogue with his brother, as well as in other characters. The story is entertaining and manages to strike a balance between painting a picture of truth and not burdening the reader with the weight of political ranting. Zukiswa does a superb job in the way she closes the story by finally putting us at ease and answering the ‘what-happened?’ question raised by the prologue. Beginning the story with an event that takes place at the end creates suspense and when you finally get there, it’s okay to leave your mouth hanging for a while. There is no doubt that Zukiswa Wanner is endowed with the gift of storytelling. Her creative thought and wit are evident in her writing.

London, Cape Town, Joburg is great for people who enjoy simple yet interesting storytelling, free from overuse of complex language.

Zukiswa

(Photo: Books Live)

Zukiswa Wanner is a journalist and novelist born in Zambia to a South African father and a Zimbabwean mother. She has contributed to publications such as Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Elle, Forbes and many more. Her other works are The Madams, Behind Every Successful Man, Men of the South, Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam, Refilwe; and collaborated works are Little Hands Books for Babies and 8115: A Prisoner’s Home. She is the founding member of ReadSA which encourages South Africans to read.

 

Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen

“There are people, who the more you do for them, the less they will do for themselves.”

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Twenty-year-old Emma Woodhouse who lives with her father, is convinced that she possess match-making prowess. She claims credit for the match between her former governess Miss Taylor and the widower, Mr Weston. This confidence leads her to having faith in her ability to find a match for her new friend Harriet Smith. Harriet already has her heart set on a farmer who Emma does not believe to be the right match for her. Instead, she encourages her to set her eyes on a gentleman she believes is of better social station, Mr Elton. Blinded by her self-assurance in match-making she fails to see that Mr Elton’s affections are towards her and not her friend, and things go sour. However, she has no interest in him at all. Her brother-in-law, Mr Knightley argues with her over her meddling in people’s lives but Emma is not discouraged.

Mr Weston’s son, Frank Churchill visits and Emma finds him charming and good company. She intends to discourage any attraction to him when she thinks that his flirtations are directed at her. However, she is still flattered by these. Some believe that Emma and Frank are getting really close but she dismisses all of these assumptions and rather conceives the idea that Frank is a better match for Harriet. After Frank rescues Harriet from an incident with the Gypsies, and Harriet’s mentioning that she has fallen for someone, Emma is convinced that it is Frank.

Another visitor, Jane Fairfax joins their circle and Emma could possibly be jealous of her. Mr Knightley has his suspicions about Jane and Frank but Emma rejects them. Things take a surprising twist when Frank reveals that he and Jane are engaged. Emma’s worry turns to surprise when she learns that it is Mr Knightley who Harriet was talking about and not Frank, and she is even more stunned that Harriet believes that Mr Knightley returns her affections.

Once again Emma finds that she has failed her friend when she learns that Mr Knightley has no interest in her at all. This discovery is worsened when she learns with whom Mr Knightley is in love.

Emma depicts a time when marriage or the union of families depended on social status or strengthened social status. Jane Austen shows how women’s progress in society depended highly on whom they were married to. Marrying above or below one’s social station had the potential of straining the relationship. The limitation of women’s abilities is portrayed to us in how Emma is an intelligent woman with great talents but she invests all these in playing match-maker.

The characters play good roles in the portrayal of society at that time. The story is engaging most of the time although at times the development of events does seem to take on a slower pace. Altogether, it is a highly enjoyable read, pleasant and perfect for classic readers and people who enjoy works of early feminists of the 18th century, who broke literary barriers at a time when literature was dominated by men.

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(Image: Southbank Centre)

Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in Steventon, England. She started writing initially as a form of entertainment and after some time started taking it seriously. Four of her novels were published during her lifetime – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. The rest were published posthumously.

To Be “Freer Than A Smile In A Baby’s Sleepin’ Eyes”

Free quality

Song Title: Free

Artist: Stevie Wonder

Album: Characters

Year: 6 November 1987

Label: Motown

I must have been about seven or eight when I first learned to use a record player, and the album Characters by Stevie Wonder was one of the records I learned to carefully play. The thing with records is that you have to start at the outermost part and when a song you love is the last one you have to wait and listen to everything – no skip or fast-forward. Well, you could place it near the innermost part but you might scratch it. So, I had to wait until the last track of side two for my favourite track, Free. It’s difficult to choose a favourite when it comes to the mighty Stevie Wonder but this one is the first on my favourite list.

Free is a lyrically rich song that conveys meaning deeper than that of physical freedom. The song penetrates into freedom within us, beyond the skin. This is one of the most powerful songs of its time, evoking emotions of self-liberation, a sense of personal victory and peace. I’ll do my best not to quote the whole song but lyrics such as the ones below are so wealthy with soul and poetry.

“Me, having nothin’
But possessing riches more than all
And I’m free
To be nowhere
But in every place I need to be”

A number of instruments like the piano, drums and percussion blend harmoniously with the featured gospel choir. The song didn’t become as popular as most of his songs such as Isn’t She Lovely, I Just Called to Say I Love You, As and I could go on for long, but it is still a masterpiece. The album Characters is the twenty-first of his work. Stevie is a musical god and has been an inspiration for many of the great artists that came after him and of our generation.

I’d prescribe this as a song for one of those moments when you need to meditate and throw yourself into a few minutes of self-examination. However, this doesn’t make it a just-sit-down-and-ponder song, it has a buoyant and colourful beat, it’s a “take me to church” song and you won’t help but dance your soles off.

Enjoy!

Been There, Still There

I’ve known it for long

You know?

The depth of pain and all

To postpone happiness

For a day it deserves

To reschedule emotions

So that all you have is a vacant space

I’ve swung on a weary thread

Above a sea of flames

I’ve had loneliness in company

I’ve felt hatred in love

I’ve breathed  without air

I’ve swum without water

I’ve slept with eyes wide open

I’ve cried without a tear

I’ve fallen without gravity

I’ve spoken without a voice

I’ve screamed  without a sound

I’ve felt a great deal in numbness

I’ve died without death

I’ve known pain, I live there