Books

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

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“What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” 

I have always wanted to read a Toni Morrison book, I’ve known about her for a while and I am sure I have shared a few quotes by her here and there but I never really got to reading one of her works. Finally, I walked into the bookstore with only the intention of getting any of her books. Well, actually I was looking for The Bluest Eye as it was recommended by a friend but it was out of stock so I picked up the only one they had, God Help the Child. I should’ve started reading her work sooner.

When light-skinned Sweetness gives birth to a blue-black skinned daughter she is shocked by the child’s colour and cannot accept it. The father’s child leaves her and she’s left to raise the child on her own in a society where different shades of skin colour are underlined. Sweetness does not show or give the child any affection. Her daughter testifies against a woman accused of a paedophilic crime, putting her in jail. Only then is Sweetness so proud of her that for the first time she gives her a bit of affection.

Years later, the daughter, Bride, is a successful business woman and absolutely stunning. Her skin gives her a unique element of beauty, giving her confidence even in her personal world where a part of her childhood haunts her. Her boyfriend Booker breaks up with her without much of an explanation. Both of them love each other but allow their childhood wounds to get in the way. Bride finds the woman she had testified against on the day of her release from prison, and offers her gifts to help her start over. It goes awfully sour. Bride ends up on a course to find Booker, whom she realises she didn’t know much about and wants to know why she broke up with him. All feelings are brought to the surface when they meet and they both discover deep truths about each other and how those revealed parts of them have shaped and led them to where they are.

I bought it in the morning, sacrificed a few hour of sleep and finished it by midnight. All read in a breath. It is a thin read but it is loaded with so much depth. There is a lot of hard truths concerning childhood pains and scars. The scars that constantly remind the adult bearers of those scars who they are, where they come from, and this novel shows that sometimes even in adulthood those scars can rule their owners.

Bride and Booker have a lot in common, in the way they hold on to things that happened to them years ago and without acknowledging it, they let those deep-seated issues form a crack between them. Morrison covers so much emotional breadth and depth. The characters are all believable and on point; you hate the husband who left, the mother who deprived her child of things that a child needed to feel and see, and you love and sympathise with the adult who still has a broken child in her.

If you’re into books that unwrap raw emotions, dig really deep and unfold the truth of human behaviour and actions then you will love this. This book might just turn you into a big Toni Morrison fan.

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(Image: The Marc Steiner Show)

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. She showed an interest in literature at an early age. She Studied humanities at Howard and Cornell Universities, then had an academic career at Texas Southern University, Howard University, Yale and later at Princeton University. Her debut novel The Bluest Eyes came out in 1970, followed by a success of other novels such as Sula, Beloved, Home and many more, including this most recent one, God Help the Child. This multi-award winner has written plays, children’s literature, academic papers, non-fiction and articles. She has worked as an editor and literary critic.


A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe 

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“When light streaks the sky, hope begins to burn.”

Publisher: Heinemann

Year: First published in 2000

The hardships of a mother to keep her children alive, to give them the best and create a better life for them, are hardly recognised or applauded. This is worse in poor societies where women labour and break their backs to ensure that their children are fed and are able to get an education. These are challenges that aren’t made any easier by patriarchal domination and the in-law system that can be harsh to them. Yet, for their children they manage to soldier on.

After Nasula’s husband dies his family takes all the money and the house that he had left behind for her and their only daughter, leaving her in dire poverty and forcing her to move back to her village. These are the nineties, a time of economic hardships and a disease that is going around consuming so many people. Nasula dreams of a better future for her daughter Sula, with education and independent of marriage. Sula is a brilliant pupil and she needs to continue with her schooling but money is a problem. Nasula needs to find a way to raise the large amount needed to pay for her fees. Her attempt to ask her in-laws only leaves her disappointed. A good friend advices her to go to Lusaka to go sell her in-demand bag of beans. After making the journey and ready to sell, a predator snatches her last hope of getting money to send her Sula to school. She might be forced to fight her way to find the thief or just give up and go home to tell her daughter that she has failed.

The wheels of the story move along swiftly and each chapter passes on the baton to the next without fail. It might be because I have spent years around Zambians but this book is written in true Zambian style. I can hear the accents, the voices, I can see the gestures and the small details that can be attributed to that particular people of the country. I can envision the setting in the book and together with Sinyangwe’s good hand, it becomes a pleasant read.

The way he uses characters and settings of the story to capture the realness of the period in which the story takes place is satisfying and the subjects that he brings to our attention are done so in an enlightening and easy to understand way. The way he leads us through the challenges that Nasula faces, the dangers in the city, the corruption, the hunger, the disease and the way a lot of matters are handled by the different characters in the book are close to the truth. It may be fiction but you can almost taste the realness of it all; the culture and the lives that these people lead. You are in Zambia.

It’s a well written story, it’s enjoyable and it’s a quick read. It doesn’t linger on the need for sympathy but rather refreshes you with the way the main character shows courage all the way. The strength of a mother. I think a lot of women, mothers even more, will enjoy this story. People who can relate to it on different levels and appreciate the way it speaks to them.

Binwell Sinyangwe is a Zambian novelist and poet who was born in 1956. He studied Industrial Economics at the Academy of Economic Sciences in Bucarest, Romania. A Cowrie of Hope is preceded by another novel, Quills of Desire. He has had a number of poems and articles published in various Zambian magazines and newspapers.


Arrows of Rain by Okey Ndibe

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“Rain has two faces…It can give life, but its arrows can also cause death.”

Publisher: First by Heinemann Educational Publishers

Year: 2000

A prostitute has drowned after being raped on the beach.  The last man who spoke to her is Bukuru who everyone calls a madman. The police take him in as the suspect and two weeks later he’s put on trial and investigators conclude that he’s responsible for other rapes and murders of prostitutes that have been going on at the same beach. After the first day of court the judge decides that Bukuru should be assessed by a second psychiatrist. This appointed doctor arranges a meeting with Femi, a reporter who wrote a piece on the case and whom Bukuru asks for to tell his story.

Bukuru tells the whole story from when he was born to when he took his post at the Monitor paper. He later meets a prostitute whom he becomes close to. He decides to write her story and he discovers that a well-known man, Isa has returned to her life. Bukuru abandons Iyese and fears taking the risk of having Isa come after him. He also doesn’t want her reputation as a prostitute linked to him. The same Isa later rapes and murders her, after she gives birth to a boy and she, believing that the baby is Bukuru’s, doesn’t let Isa into the its life. The child who survives with a slash on the leg is taken to an orphanage. When Isa is appointed the leader during a coup, Bukuru believes that he will come after him and so he leaves everything and lives on the beach as a madman until the day of his arrest. After Femi reads the story he travels back to his own personal story and how he found out that he was adopted. Trying to sort out the puzzle, with the knowledge that he was in the same orphanage that Bukuru had mentioned, and that he bears a scar on his leg, could it be that the madman is his biological father?

The beginning of the story starts with a bang, a case to follow, questions are raised and there’s a mystery to follow, a truth that seeks to be found. This just moves the story forward at a good pace and is worth following. The plot! Ndibe did well, I have to say. All the events are so well connected, cohesive, interesting and entertaining. There’s nothing in his sketching of reality that is incomprehensible, all the information he throws at us is at good doses and he never digresses. There are books that have parts that can be skipped and nothing’s lost but in this one, he made sure that every line has something to offer and isn’t to be lost. Even when the active voice changes, we are kept on track with the story, all the events breeze through the story so easily and smoothly and interact so impressively with the rest of the story.

The main character is a rollercoaster, one minute he’s worth all the sympathy in the world and the next, he’s just an annoying coward who one can feel really needs to get a steel pair. However, it’s such a good way of making him and everyone around him believable and gives space to love and hate him. All the characters are well-developed, their attitudes, appearances, defects and relationships are spot-on.

Ndibe’s way of placing topics such as prostitution, power and fear is worth a cheer. There’s a way he shows the ways in which prostitutes start, live, struggle, are treated and it’s not in a manner that begs for pity but more in a realistic and honest way. The power hungry and the ones who are victims of that power also play a role, but what I like is that he didn’t throw all of that in our faces in a way that would’ve made his story what people label another “typical African story.”

I just cannot fault this book in any way, and the end is also unpredictable. Once I reached the climax, I thought I could predict how it would all turn out but the author knew how and when to stop. I would recommend this book for people who prefer a mobile story, events going forward with revelations along the way. African literature lovers will enjoy this and anyone just looking for an entertaining story.

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(Image: OkeyNdibe)

Okey Ndibe was born in 1960 in Yola, Nigeria. Before moving to the US he worked in Nigeria as a journalist and magazine editor. He earned his MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In 1988, in the US, he was the founding editor of the award-winning magazine, African Commentary which was published by the great Chinua Achebe. He also worked as a professor at several colleges, he has contributed many poems and essays to a various publications. Arrows of Rain is his first novel, and after it he published the novels, Never Look an American in the Eye, and Foreign Gods, Inc.


Oil on Water by Helon Habila

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“We believe the sun rising brings a renewal. All of creation is born anew with the new day. Whatever goes wrong in the night has a chance for redemption after a cycle.” 

Publisher: First published by Hamish Hamilton. Now Penguin Books.

Year: 2010

The wife of a British oil engineer has been kidnapped and two journalists are recruited on a mission to find her. Zaq is an infamous journalist who was well-respected in his times, while Rufus is a young reporter who’s craving to make a name for himself in the industry and he’s a great admirer of the ageing hack. They set off on what may seem to be a straight-forward mission but the unknown awaits them as they journey into the dangerous oil zones of the Niger Delta.

At first there are other journalists added but after they return to Port Harcourt, Zaq and Rufus find themselves carrying on to find the truth. They end up being guided by an old man and his son, moving from one abandoned and destroyed village to another. Along their journey, people have been taken by the military, death has left a scent behind, the waters where people depended for fishing have been contaminated, the air is heavy with the smoke from the burnings and animals and plants have been killed. Zaq contracts a disease and his love for the bottle does not help his condition, yet he’s determined to carry on. Rufus makes a great deal of discoveries about the darkness and corruption in the world he has entered and learns about the events that led to the disappearance of the woman he’s out to find, while his life could be in danger and there’s a possibility of him losing his fellow journalist.

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Oil on Water expresses the real catastrophe that took place in those oil-abundant regions. There’s a good illustration of environmental decay, the struggle for power, political corruption and the destruction of communities that were once closely knit and thriving. Habila writes the story by jumping from one period to another; relating the present and then shifting to recalling memories. It is a good form of writing and most of the time, if you are willing to keep up and pay attention, it makes the read interesting. However, there are parts where you can find yourself lost in some of the temporal shift. At one point the main character is in a terrorised village and the next page you find yourself in a different location that sounds similar but you have to focus hard to find out where exactly he is. The protagonist is realistic and very easy to root for. At times he appears to be a novice who may have found himself doing the job because of circumstances far from passion yet along the way he seems to have the knack for the job. A combination of fear and guts, which makes him an acceptable character and one that people can relate to. The ending was not as thrilling as I had expected, I was left wanting more and hungry for real excitement. It could have left me with my mouth hanging, a major discovery that grabs balls with sharp nails but there was just something flat about the ending. Overall, the entire story itself is well-written and there’s a good flow that pulls you into the pages so that you want to see what happens next.

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Image: British Council

Helon Habila is a novelist and poet, born in Nigeria. He did his studies of English Language and Literature at the University of Jos. In 2001 Love Poems, one of the stories in his short story anthology, received the Caine Prize for African Writing. His debut novel, Waiting for an Angel, came out in 2002. It went on to win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book (Africa Region). After winning the Caine Prize, he was invited to be the first African Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia, where he stayed as a Chevening Scholar, and later as a PhD Candidate. Together with Parrésia Publishers, he started a publishing company called Cordite Books in 2013. Some of his works include Measuring Time, Dreams, Miracles, and Jazz: An Anthology of New Africa Fiction, Prison Stories and many more. Habila divides his time between Nigeria and USA.


Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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Author: Vladimir Nabokov

Publisher: Olympia Press

Year: 1955

“A man with an unfulfilled childhood romance whose obsession with a young girl leads to a trip on the wheels of tragedy.”

It took me a while to finally get a copy of Lolita because I was afraid of what I’d find in it. I had only heard a few comments about the read and they weren’t exactly pretty. When I read about the difficulty of defining aesthetics in art, an example was given about the difficulty in forming a definition when (im)morality is thrown in – can an art form still be defined as aesthetic if it challenges our morals? An example of such was Lolita and I thought maybe I didn’t really want to be that person who’s known to enjoy such books. Then I said to myself, ‘What the heck? Let me read it and I’ll judge it for myself.’ I read it in a less than a week and that, my dear friends, I only do when a book has me by the sack.

Humbert meets his first love, Annabel while they’re still young and unfortunately she dies from typhus, leaving him in a spell of an ‘unfinished childhood romance.’ The English teacher has a good career but also spends some time in a mental institution. He has an obsession with young girls; nymphets, who remind him of Annabel. He marries an adult woman but the marriage fails and he moves to the US. He views a room in a widow’s house, Charlotte Haze, out of politeness and does not plan to stay there until he sees the twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores – his Lolita. Humbert falls in love with the child and records these feelings in his diary, including his hate for Charlotte. The widow confesses her love for him in a letter and gives him two choices; to continue living in the house if he feels the same way or move out if he doesn’t. To be close to his nymphet he marries Charlotte. Humbert contemplates killing her just to be with Lolita but soon a discovery of his diary by Charlotte leads to the events of her death in an accident.

Humbert takes the child on a journey far from home and around the country. At the first motel they stay in he tells the child of her mother’s death. Humbert claims to be seduced by the child and that is when the sexual activities between the child and the paedophilic step-father begins. He gets a job at Beardsley and she enrols in a girl’s school. His obsession is so intense that he dictates everything about her life so as to keep her all to himself, depriving Lolita of a normal childhood. They go off on the road again when he suspects that she’s being unfaithful and on their trip there seems to be someone following them. Lolita falls sick and ends up in hospital, but after her stay there Humbert finds that she has checked out with an uncle. He searches for her for two years and at seventeen she finally writes to him sharing her state of life and asks for money. Humbert traces her place and after the visit he goes on to find the man who had taken his Lolita from him. When he finds the man, nothing stops him from taking drastic measures for revenge.

If the story was not narrated with this much humour, the marrow of this story would have just appeared more disturbing than it actually is. Lolita is the kind of read that joins the circle of books that without even being read, is already exposed to criticism and questions of morality. However, when you do read it you find that the sadness and shock are carried well through by the strength of the Nabokov’s use of words in an exquisitely artistic manner. He plays well with language; the use of intimation to hint at certain shocking and disgusting details. The rape, paedophilia, incest, murder and pornography are not always explicitly mentioned, rather he uses literary shadowing to refer to them in a way that makes the reader appreciate his method and at the same time completely get what he is on about.

The story itself is an unpleasant and unlikable topic but the art is one to be appreciated. What could be a bit of a miss is that the narration comes from Humbert and everything is from his perspective. It is more about his passion for the child and for every foul move he makes it’s almost as if he wants us to understand where he’s coming from, which is inexcusable for the kind of crime he commits. We also don’t get to know Lolita that well, all we know is the way that Humbert sees her – through the eyes of a man with a twisted mind. We don’t get to actually get a picture of how she feels about the whole arrangement or hear her voice. All we get is what Humbert tells us, which is biased and that’s all we have to go with.

Overall it’s an excellent piece of literary art that draws us to a world of moral corruption that is not alien to real societies where monstrous men like Humbert do exist. It also manages to demonstrate the imprisonment of a child’s mind or victim by painting a dead-end picture where it appears that the only road they can take is the one with their predator.

I would recommend this book to readers with a sense of humour and a willingness to read the book without bringing any preconceived ideas to the table, and actually give the pages a chance to turn. There may be parts while reading where you might think, “Why in hell’s a**e am I reading this?” but you may not be able to resist carrying on.


The New Tribe by Buchi Emecheta

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Reverend Arlington and his wife Ginny are not able to have their own children and when a baby girl is abandoned at birth and brought to their doorstep, they are happy to adopt her. A Nigerian woman living in England hears about the story and unable to look after her son, Chester, she decides that the Arlingtons would be the perfect family to provide a home for him. Chester is the only black child in the area and soon as he grows up he can tell that something about him is different. At some point the Reverend and his wife decide that it’s time to let Julia and Chester know about their adoption. Chester keeps having a recurring dream of his people in Nigeria and grows up with the images continuing to play in his head. Chester leaves St Simon without telling anyone where he’s going, driven by the need to find out about himself. While he had been working at the Clinton’s holiday place during the school vacation he had met a Nigerian man and so he heads to Liverpool to stay with them. He finds a job at the local leisure centre where he meets Esther the co-ordinator, and a Nigerian man named Jimoh. He tells him of his dream and Jimoh tells him that he has a calling to return him to find his people, with that he also convinces him to travel to Nigeria where he will be staying with his family.

Chester travels to Nigeria and the events that greet him are far from what he expected. They help him look around for an African king called Oba who had lost his son, and this son could possibly be Chester. They have no luck at all. Later on while Chester lies in hospital with Malaria, no passport and no money, back in Liverpool Esther and Julia meet. Julia has been looking for her brother and eventually tracked him down through Mr Ugwu’s details from the holiday place that he used to visit. Esther had already planned on going to Nigeria to look for Chester and had been given details of where he was by Jimoh. They return to Liverpool, finally giving in to the feelings they have had for each other all that while. Chester gets a visit from Julia and she has a lot to tell him about the death of their father, what happened to her and most importantly, about his real parents who are still very much alive. She also hands him a storybook from Ginny that she had made for him when he was a little boy, in her attempts to keep him in touch with his people. It is when Chester reads the book and sees the pictures that he discovers where what he thought was a calling to Africa actually came from.

It’s a quick read, in some parts the story feels rushed. Ginny’s character is my favourite, her strength as a wife and as a mother. The protagonist, however, is not that easy to get into and fall in love with, it feels as though the writer did not bring out all of him. There could have been a lot more about him that she could have given us and so a lot of him ended up being a little vague. However, the challenges that he faces as a black child are real and easy to understand, making it easy to sympathise with him. His quest for his identity also makes a lot of sense, as a black face in a pool of whites. I also liked the way Emecheta portrayed Lagos, in its real appearance and how Chester couldn’t belong. That is expected, he had grown up in a completely environment, different culture and beliefs and if he had immediately fit in like a missing puzzle piece, it would have killed the story. The New Tribe has a straightforward plot and it’s written in simple and easy language. It’s enjoyable and I would recommend it to people who enjoy African literature that does not focus on racism on heavy issues that stereotypes associate with the genre.

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Buchi Emecheta, (born Florence Onyebuchi Emecheta) is a Nigerian author, born in Lagos in 1944. When she was ten she won a Methodist Girls’ High School scholarship where she remained until she left school and was married by seventeen. She accompanied her husband to London where he was a student and at after being in an unhappy marriage, she finally left him at the age of twenty-two. While working to support her five children on her own, Emecheta took an honours degree in sociology. She worked as a library officer for the British Museum in London, then worked as a youth worker and sociologist for the Inner London Education Authority and later as a community worker. Her success as an author grew and she travelled around as a lecturer and visiting professor. Her works include The Bride Price, The Joys of Motherhood, A Kind of Marriage, Second-Class Citizen, Destination Biafra, The Slave Girl and many others. She has also written plays, articles and children’s and young adult stories.


Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi

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This tale of Fulani herdsman begins when Mai Sunsaye rescues a slave girl from the infamous, ex-soldier Shehu and takes her into his home. One of his sons, Hoodio runs off with the girl, leaving his infatuated younger brother, Rikku distressed about losing her. He asks his father to get her back for him and Sunsaye gives his word. Sunsaye is taken by the wandering sickness, known as the sokugo and finds himself wandering from village to village. The slave girl is taken by Shehu from Hoodio and she runs away from him, with no one knowing where she is. Hoodio takes on another wife. Their other brother, successful brother takes his mother and sister in another village after their own is set on fire. When their grassy plains are burnt the herdsman have to move towards the banks of the Niger. Sunsaye goes around where he finds each son in a different place. He also discovers the slave girl and with the help of a number of people, they have to find a way to rescue Rikku from the hands of Shehu.

This story of the nomadic lives of the Fulani herdsman transported me to a circle around a fire at night, listening to a croaking voice of an old person. There’s something nostalgic about it and it has that organic quality of African storytelling. It’s short and light. As much as I enjoyed the most of part it, I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I had read it in high school or just earlier in my age. This is because some of the events were a little flat, like what was supposed to be the climax, the rescuing of Rikku. It’s short-lived and could have done with a little more drama and intensity.

What I also took from it was the picture it gives of the culture and traditions of that age, some of which do still exist. The simplicity of their lifestyle, the way in which people could easily open up to strangers who have been exhausted by their long journeys and in need of rest and food. These are things that we have completely lost, with all the crimes that surround us. It’s a great classic and a perfect read for readers who prefer short and sweet, and who want to go back to that richness of African tales.

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Cyprian Ekwensi was born in 1921, in Nigeria. He studied at the Ibadan University College in Nigeria and at the Chelsea School of Pharmacy in London. He was an exceptional novelist, short-story writer, television script writer and a children’s books writer. His most successful novel was Jagua Nana, published in 1961.


The Famished Road by Ben Okri

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A compelling story with an elegiac tone, oscillating between the mortal and the spirit world and feeding us extraordinary experiences that leave us both delighted and rattled.

In most-likely post-colonial Nigeria, Azaro is a spirit child, known as an abiku, who chooses to stay in the living world despite his spirit companions’ attempts to get him to return to the land of the dead or the unborn. However, he still has his ties with the spirit world and moves between the two worlds. Life in the mortal world proves to be nothing but a cycle of tragedies; his parents sink into an abyss of poverty, political battles and the hardships that breathe around them don’t seem to reach an end.

On the literary stage, this novel is its own story – it belongs to itself, and that’s what makes it stand out and become a unique read. Ben Okri experiments with the extraordinary, with language, with imagination and creativity and writes past boundaries. The way that he manipulates words, and bends and unbends language, with rhythmic writing and often in poetic construction, makes it clear why the novel is a Booker Prize winner and the inspiration behind Radiohead’s song, Street Spirit (Fade Out). Azaro is the main character and the reader sees the world though his eyes and at some parts through dialogue, through his father’s eyes. He’s the lens through which we get to see how mythical elements are incorporated into real life social structures.

It is, however, a long story that is cyclical in some parts, repeating certain events without much change to the outcome. For example, each time his father goes into a boxing match with someone, we know he’ll recover with some unknown force, defeat his opponent who is usually a peculiar sort, spend days asleep and wake up with a strange new energy. Perhaps this is a demonstration of rebirth because he always wakes with a strange change in him. Regardless of that, there’s no element of surprise in some of the events. There’s also the rain that seems to always appear when there’s a heightened event. This can be tiring because it is quite a long novel, more than five hundred pages of repeated scenes only done so in different words, in employing different adjectives.

If you stick around long enough to pass through the taxing stages, you fall in love with it again and it gains momentum with its humour and introduction of changes and towards the end taking on a tone of hope. Some of the characters are also good representatives of reality and Okri succeeds in using them as brushes that paint a picture of the suffering in the ghetto, the socio-political changes that take place and the everyday life events that we sometimes don’t pay attention to. The end has a visionary tone and it’s one of my best parts, where some of the things that Okri wrote at that time have come to exist. In this day of quoting people and employing them as personal mantras I’d suggest you pick some from this book.

“So long as we are alive, so long as we feel, so long as we love, everything in us is an energy we can use.”

The strong ropes of love that bind Azaro’s family are heart-breaking and inspiring at the same time. No matter how severe their sufferings, his father continues to break his back working to feed the family, and his mother makes a lot of sacrifices and is the quintessence of an enduring maternal figure. Azaro could go back to the supernatural world that is devoid of the suffering that he goes through in the real world, but he chooses to stay and wants to make his mother happy.

This magical story is a different take on African literature as most are accustomed to. It is so pleasant to not read recycled stories that focus mainly on breathing the usual problems of Africa through simple, comfortable, familiar and straightforward storylines. It’s refreshing, arresting most of the time, a little eerie in some of the details and it’s also moving. It leaves you with something to take with and to use on your own personal journey.

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(Image: The Guardian)

Ben Okri was born in Nigeria in 1959. He is a poet and novelist, who has become an international literary sensation. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and he has received a number of international awards, such as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Chianti Ruffino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize, the Premio Grinzane Cavour and many others. The Famished Road is one of the many novels he has written, including Flowers and Shadows, Astonishing the Gods, Starbook and The Age of Magic.


The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu

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There are people who can get anything they want through the strength of their personality.” 

There is something refreshing about a story that doesn’t zoom in only on a small part of the bigger picture, but explores all dimensions and manages to deliver. We are generally fed dark stories about countries in Africa, always dim and repeated. Here, we are able to go see different parts of a contemporary Zimbabwe without having to neglect the biting issues, striking a good balance between all that takes place in reality.

Vimbai works at Mrs Khumalo’s hair salon and is known as the best hairdresser. Her spotlight is stolen when Dumisani comes looking for a job at the salon and makes such a good impression he becomes not just a member of the staff but the best. Vimbai is not pleased at all but her bitterness is slowly melted away by his charm. When he needs a place to stay she offers to rent out a room in her house. In need of a favour to iron out a few issues with his family, Dumisani asks Vimbai to be his date at his brother’s wedding and it is to Vimbai’s shock that she finds that he is from one of the richest families in Harare. She is also amazed at how welcoming they are and what follows that day is immense generosity towards her, changing her life in a tremendous way. The friendship between the two hairdressers deepens. A lot comes to light when Vimbai discovers Dumisani’s deepest secret about his true character.

The Hairdresser of Harare offers good commentary on the country’s social issues such as homophobia and survival in a country that is not blooming with opportunities for those at the bottom. Huchu’s greatest weapon in his narration is humour, so good that even at times when the story seems to lean towards a miss, the humour saves the day. Jealousy, rivalry between the two main characters, prejudice and ambition are the ingredients to this story. Although altogether an enjoyable read there are parts that are a bit fantastical, such as Vimbai’s road to success and how everything keeps unfolding in her favour, in a place where these opportunities are tragically out of reach for most people. There are also a few parts that are clichéd and a little flat. However, most of the story exhibits Huchu’s clever way of handling political and cultural issues, tragedies in families and morality. The novel is also easy to read and has satisfactory motion. He’s clearly a witty and intelligent writer.

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Tendai Huchu was born in Bindura, Zimbabwe in 1982. He went to Churchill High School and then went to study Mining Engineering at the University of Zimbabwe. In the middle of the first semester he dropped out and from there went from one job to another. He later returned to university and is now a podiatrist in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has also written An Untimely Love and The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician.


All the Bright Place by Jennifer Niven

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“You are all the colours in one, at full brightness.”

Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Publisher: Penguin Books

Year: 2015

Death fascinates Theodore Finch and he’s always thinking about different ways he could die. Broken and believing that no one can fix him, he wants to take his own life. In the same school, Violet Markey is struggling to deal with the death of her sister. It is on the ledge of the school bell tower that their worlds collide and it is not clear who saves whom. The two are paired for a project where they have to explore and report on at least two interesting and bright places in their small Indiana town.

Through this assignment and spending time together a love story unfolds, a charming yet heart-breaking one. Finch is able to be himself when he’s with Violet. At the same time, Violet no longer counts the days until she can escape the small town, and starts living those days. Her time with Finch widens her world and it is him who manages to slowly put back her broken pieces. Although the labelled ‘freak’ is actually a lively, smart and bold person, Finch’s world is still crumbling and his fascination with death and suicidal thoughts do not evaporate. He sinks into depression, his world shrinks even further and after a few days of not being seen anywhere, Violet is led by words that Finch had written and looks for him at one of the places they had wandered and when she gets there she knows he’s gone. His bloated, dead body is later pulled out of the water. Through her devastation she follows the clues that Finch has left for her and she visits all the bright places in their small town and it could be a start to experiencing that brightness in herself.

Niven zooms in on mental illness and suicide. The story focuses extensively on these two characters who take us with them into the dark holes of depression that swallow them up. It is impressive how the author uses the other background characters­—family, friends, school mates and community—to display society’s oblivion to mental illness and the lack of understanding of it. We see this in some parts, for example Finch’s mother says he’s ‘too tender-hearted’ or when his body is searched for in the water, one of the spectators says ‘Goddamn kids’ or when Violet’s father tells her she can’t use the death of her sister as an excuse to act out. Finch is also teased at school, called a freak and known as number one of the most suicidal people, yet some continue to torment him. It is only after he’s dead that the school goes into some kind of mourning, with his photos up and messages written to or for him. The difficult battle of depression is waved off as something to simply get over, acting up or something else that is far from the real problem.

The story is sad and tragic but Niven manages to not depress you that much. Yes, about depression but not entirely depressing, with a hopeful end, although Finch’s death leaves you feeling betrayed by the author and it feels unfair that he had to die. The critics might argue that as a young adult book it shouldn’t have involved suicide as that may send out a message to young people that that can be the way out of the four thick walls of mental struggle, but I think All the Bright Places simply tries to be realistic. There is treatment and therapy but it’s not always that straightforward for the people who struggle to step forward and say. ‘Hey, I have a problem.’ Niven handles these delicate topics with a careful hand and overall gives us an unregretful experience. I would recommend the book more for people who don’t get mental illness and suicide than for people seeking to find identity in the story.

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Jennifer Niven has written books across different genres and All the Bright Place is her first YA book. Some of the awards the book has earned are Time Magazine Best Book of the Year, Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Year, Dioraphte Audience Award for Best YA Book, Time Magazine Best Book of the Year and many more. She grew up in Indiana but lives in Los Angeles.  


Beyond the Horizon by Amma Darko

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A powerful and brutally honest account of the objectification and degradation of women, in Africa and beyond. 

I found the objectification of women to be the nucleus of this story. At the beginning of the book we have the main character standing in front of the mirror, staring at what’s left of her image. She’s a prostitute in a brothel where in other rooms the same things are happening to other women like her, their bodies being used by men as they please.

The story takes on a reflective course of how Mara went from her village of Naka in Ghana as a dutiful wife to her husband Akobi, to the city and ends up as a prostitute in Europe. Mara does not choose her husband, her father chooses the son of the undertaker and she has no say in the matter. Akobi lives in the city and when Mara moves there she finds nothing like what she expected. Her marriage to Akobi also turns to be an abusive nightmare. Akobi is a loveless brute, who is constantly devoured by the need to look after his image in the city. This need to appear a certain way is so big that he does not even want to be seen with his ‘green’ village wife in public.

Mara throws away rubbish for the local people in exchange for food and later on, when Akobi will not give her a cent she starts selling boiled eggs. Akobi is ashamed of her and the neglect and abuse seems to heighten. However, Mara still believes that it is part of her duty as a wife, to carry the burden of marriage as such. When she falls pregnant, Akobi is not pleased and this is not the expectation that Mara had because she thought giving him a child would make things different. When Akobi moves to Europe, leaving her with promises of a better life when he returns she exerts herself to transforming her image and becoming a new city wife. Later on Akobi invites her to join him in Europe. She arrives in Germany as an illegal immigrant and her life depends completely on Akobi and the decisions he makes for her. Her husband’s betrayal and deception trap her into a life of prostitution. She meets more women like her, African women who came to Germany with different dreams but learned the hardships of being an immigrant in Europe and the lack of choices they have had to live with, the life that has no turning back. Mara slowly learns everything about her husband’s life in Germany and she takes a bold move to make sure that he does not go unpunished. Yet, this does not become her ticket back home, instead she stays in that life, two children left behind at home and a family that doesn’t know the truth of her life.

Amma Darko does not spare us the painful details that portray the truth of women who are used as pawns in the games of social patriarchy, prostitution, pornography and trafficking. Her main character reflects on her story that is painful and embarrassing but she doesn’t bore us with self-pity. We witness the transformation that takes place mostly without much choice. Mara is one of many women, uneducated and without much say as to what happens in their lives. Darko’s portrayal of the extreme lengths that African people have to take to make it work in Europe is sickening and sad.

I appreciate her straightforward style of writing and beginning the book with the end, if gotten right, passes with flying colours to create interest and the urge to find out how the character got to where they were; and she got it right. The story progresses without ever lingering on any part that could lose or bore you. She exposes many of the false ideas that people have of the perfect life in Europe, and possibly other foreign countries. She also zooms in on male dominance and what’s so interesting with that is that she shows how this spares no race, with the way Akobi treats Mara, as well as his German wife. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and place it as one of the most excellent stories that add to the richness of African literature.

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Amma Darko was born in Ghana in 1956. She studied in Kumasi where she received her diploma in 1980 and then worked at a centre for technological counselling at the University of Kumasi. She moved to Germany, where she stayed from 1981 until 1987 and wrote her first novel, Beyond the Horizon, which was first published in German. In 1998/99, she had a scholarship from “Akademie Schloss Solitude”. J.M. Coetzee had appointed her. She contributed to the Solitude publications, “Lexikon der sperrigen Wörter” (2010) and “Solitude Atlas” (2015). In 2008, she received the Ghana Book Award. Amma Darko now lives in her home country. Her other works include Faceless (2003) and Not without Flowers (2007), amongst others.


The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

“Love thy neighbour? Easier said than done.”

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Title: The Woman Next Door

Author: Yewande Omotoso

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Chatto & Windus – Penguin Random House UK

Marion Agostino and Hortensia James are two octogenarians living in the small, beautiful region of Katterijn in Cape Town. The two neighbours, one white and the other black, are sworn enemies who do not conceal their hatred for each other. Besides their mutual hatred, they have other things in common; both have recently been widowed, they both have made impressive careers in their lives and they both have personal, deep-seated bitterness.

An unforeseen event crops up and the women are forced to work together. This first begins with the continued bickering but slowly turns into slightly relaxed debates and they also begin to open up about their pasts and memories. It is possible that this new change in weather could produce a new friendship, or maybe it might be too late.

The story takes on a slow pace at the beginning, we jump from one character to the other and one space and time to another, but without exactly getting to connect with the characters. It takes a bit of a while to get to the juice of the story and get excited and eager to carry on. It’s not a particularly extraordinary story but it can be enjoyable if you give it patience.

However, Omotoso writes with good humour and through the nature of the characters, the grumpiness that we recognise from old people, we get some tickles from the story. Along the way, as slowly as she eases you into it, you get to appreciate the journeys that the two women have travelled and through their recollection of memories as well as the dialogue between them you can’t help but feel for them. As they open up to each other about their marriages, children or none, they also open up to us in an endearing manner and you can’t exactly choose one from the other. Their reconciliation is warm and it’s something the reader would want to happen. The ending may at first seem unexceptional but when I fully digested the story, to me the reconciliation between the black Hortensia and the white Marion represented the reconciliation of race in a country where racial tensions have always been so heavy and haunting. I would recommend the book for people who appreciate a simple story that does not need the burden of using grandiloquent and embellished language.

Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria and moved to South Africa in 2002. The trained architect had her first novel Bom Boy published in 2011. In 2012 she won the South African Literary Award for the First-Time Published Author and she was shortlisted for the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize. In the following year she became a finalist in the inaugural, Etisalat Fiction Prize. The Woman Next Door is her second novel.


The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe by Timothy Williams

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Author: Timothy Williams

Publisher: Soho Press, Inc

Year: 2015

We met French-Algerian judge, Anne Marie Laveaud in the prequel, Another Sun when she had a case to solve in the midst of racial conflicts and in an island haunted by colonialism. Her unrelenting determination to find justice was one of her best qualities and we were left hanging and desperately curious to how her journey would continue.

Well, we finally get to page through her journey when ten years later, she still has surprises thrown her way when two unsettling murders disturb the folk of Guadeloupe. Anne Marie still lives in the French Caribbean region of Guadeloupe. A high-profile environmental activist and media personality has committed suicide and just when she has begun to investigate his death, she is pulled off the case. She’s assigned to the case of a dead white woman whose naked body is found on the beach. A white tourist found dead on the beach does not sit well with many and it undesirably attracts international media attention. Anne Marie is under huge pressure to solve the case before the island loses its paradisiacal reputation.

Anne Marie’s second appearance is as interesting as ever, her character with a messy life, as expected of someone who spend so much time on solving cases, is believable and favourable. The story of the two murders unfolds in unexpected ways and you hardly find yourself lost and clueless. Just when you think it’s all coming together, you’re thrown off again and the frustration just shows a well-measured ingredient of good, crime fiction writing.

Williams manages to seep through the holes of a perfect paradise and unfold all the layers, reaching the deepest parts to give us the concealed elements of corruption, racial stains and colonial legacies. A master to the craft of his genre, he tells the story in a clear, intelligent and enthralling manner. The reader is grabbed by the throat from the get-go and the short chapters have the advantage of setting a manageable reading pace. The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe is enjoyable and fascinating and I’d recommend it to the crime fiction lovers who can’t stay away from mysterious corpses, persistent investigations and punch-in the face endings.

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Timothy Williams is a CWA award winner who has written five Italian mysteries and two Anne Marie novels (including this one) set in Guadeloupe. He was born in London and has taught at universities in France, Italy and Romania. He has retired from teaching and resides in Norwich. Williams travels around the world and continues to spoil us with his brilliant work.


Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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“But, in her life, nothing was going to happen. Such was the will of God! The future was a dark corridor, and at the far end the door was bolted.”

Author: Gustave Flaubert

Published: 1857

When Emma marries the doctor Charles Bovary she believes that her marriage will be just like the romantic tales that she reads. To her disappointment, she finds that Charles is a boring and dull man, and the humdrum life in the village also adds to the ennui. After attending a magnificent ball her fantasies of a luxurious and sophisticated life are inflamed. These dreams remain just that and her colourless marriage and life lead to depression and she falls ill. She falls pregnant and they move to a new town.

In that new town she meets Leon who shares her sentiments regarding the rural life. Just like Emma, he also holds romantic ideas that he reads about in fictional books. The birth of her daughter does nothing to uplift her spirits. Romance heats up between Emma and Leon but her guilt only throws her into being a dutiful wife. Leon goes off to Paris and Emma remains dejected.

Not too long after that she begins an affair with another man, Rodolphe. Emma’s passionate feelings for him become so deep that she goes all out to borrow money to buy him gifts, and even suggests that they elope. Rodolphe grows bored of her and deserts her. Emma reverts to her depression and illness. While she’s ill, Charles has to make plans to settle her debts. When she recovers, he treats her by taking her to the opera, where they bump into Leon. The two’s romance is rekindled and they start an affair. Her debts increase and she starts going around trying to raise the money. Emma’s despair drives her to the edge.

Emma Bovary represents a society where women were powerless and unable to change their circumstances. She imagines a life completely different to what she has with her dim-witted husband and her only way to escape it is through infidelity. It seems the only weapon she possesses is her beauty yet that is not powerful enough to actually rescue her from the dullness of her life and to materialize her dreams of sophistication and romance.

There were moments where I got impatient with her, where it felt like her fantasies were consuming her and too far from reality. However, I understood the circumstances that women found themselves in in those days. In the nineteenth century women’s successes were measured by marriage – being married and whom they were married to, but it was never based on their own merit or anything that they did for themselves, because they couldn’t do much. Considering this lack of power and her inability to create her own wealth like the men did, her frustration is justified.  It’s also frustrating how men only see her as an object of beauty, without any other value that she could use for herself.

I also thought that if she could have the spine to go ahead with her affairs, running the risk of everyone knowing and the boldness to dive into so much debt and later offer to prostitute herself for the money, could she really not find a way to pressure her husband to try a little? Although women did not have much say in their marriages at the time, she was a brave one and she could have used that to push Charles a bit because clearly he loved her very much and perhaps he could have gone all out to give her what her heart desired. There’s a big gap where communication could have fitted well.

Madame Bovary clearly challenged the society in which Flaubert lived. It was written at a time when immorality took place but could not be spoken of because it didn’t sit well with society to do so, which makes its boldness even more interesting. Flaubert’s prose is exceptional, in that he writes in a way that his style matches the moods in the book. It’s a riveting narrative and a delightful read. There’s harmony in the story, the scenes are all pieced together without losing the reader or being vague at times.

Gustave Flaubert was a French novelist born in 1821, in Rouen, France. He was educated at the Lycée Pierre Corneille, and later went to study law in Paris, a study he abandoned after an epileptic attack. He started writing at a very young age and his best known works include Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education. He died of cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 58, in 1880.


Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”20160823_151744

Published: 1847

Mr Earnshaw, master of Wuthering Heights leaves for Liverpool and returns a few days later with an orphaned boy, Heathcliff. The children, Hindley and Catherine loathe the child on sight but soon the daughter comes to love him. Heathcliff and Catherine become profoundly close while Hindley’s hatred intensifies and he constantly bullies him. Hindley is sent off to school while Heathcliff remains at home with Catherine. Mr Earnshaw dies and Hindley returns home with a wife, and becomes master of Wuthering Heights. Hindley reduces Heathcliff to a common labourer and continues his cruelty towards him, while the love between Catherine and Heathcliff deepens.

On one of their wanderings, Catherine and Heathcliff end up outside the Lintons’ house at Thrushcross Grange. Their plan to watch the Linton kids, Edgar and Isabella, doesn’t go well when Catherine is bitten by the dog. While she’s invited to stay until she’s well, Heathcliff is sent off. Catherine returns home a lady and infatuated with Edgar Linton, although she still has immortal feelings for Heathcliff. She chooses to marry Edgar as she believes it will make her ‘the greatest woman the neighbourhood.’

Hindley’s wife passes on leaving behind a boy, Hareton. He drowns himself in alcohol and misery. Heathcliff returns with vast wealth and a heavy load of revenge on his agenda. When Hindley dies, Heathcliff becomes master of Wuthering Heights and marries Isabella Linton even though his love is only for Catherine. Unable to no longer bear her husband’s cruelty, Isabella flees to London, where gives birth to a son named Linton.

Catherine falls ill and dies after giving birth to a daughter, Cathy Linton. After Isabella dies Edgar takes him but this custody does not last when Heathcliff immediately demands that his son come live with him at Wuthering Heights. The two cousins, Linton and Catherine develop a romance carried on through letters. Heathcliff forces the two to marry. Cathy’s father Edgar later dies from an illness and she stays at Wuthering Heights under the cruel treatment of her brutal father-in-law, and having to look after her frail husband. Linton dies and Cathy forms a friendship with her other cousin, Hareton. Heathcliff takes on a strange behaviour and the intensity of his love for the late Catherine continues to have an unbreakable grasp on him.

Along the story, I couldn’t help but think how messed up the characters are. Some readers could take it as ‘normal’ psychological traits of some human beings while some readers could be so put off by the characters that it could possibly pollute their overall opinion of the whole story.

This is a story of a love so intense it breeds destruction and malice. It is also a story of indomitable revenge. Most of the conflicts that arise are rooted in the passion between Heathcliff and Catherine. The destruction their love creates bleeds into the lives of the other characters. It is told through the voice of an internal narrator, Nelly Dean who worked for all four masters; Mr Earnshaw Senior, his son Hindley, Edgar Linton and Heathcliff. We are first thrown into scenes that do not offer much explanation about the characters and the temporal manipulation by the author explains everything that raises questions at the beginning of the story. A slight weakness would be in how a servant could have been able to capture as much detail as she gives in the narration. However, the rhythm of her narration reflects Brontë’s ability to knit a story in a coherent manner, never losing its audience.

It’s a gloomy story, too much suffering and infliction of pain, a lot of cruelty and tragedy. What is difficult to understand about the story is its moral. Is there a particular message she conveys or a lesson a reader is to take from the story? However, despite the unpleasant features of the characters and the darkness of the story, it is undeniably a work of smart writing. On a story level it is easy to hate but the narration is worth an applause. I would recommend it for readers who read not only for the entertainment of a story but also for the appreciation of its literary quality.

Emily Brontë was born on 30 July 1818 in Thornton, England. The Brontës were a literary family that produced appreciated novelists and poets. Her sisters Charlotte and Anne were also well-known writers.  In the late 1830s she taught for a short period. In 1842 she studied in Brussels and later returned to Howarth where she spent the rest of her life.  Wuthering Heights was her only novel. She died from tuberculosis in 1848.


Nigger For Life by Dr Neal Hall, M.D. 

A raw and dauntless articulation of the stabbing truth about race in America.

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Author: Neal Hall, M.D.

Publisher: Neal E. Hall

Date: 2013

Dr Neal Hall is a Cornwell University graduate, he holds a medical degree from Michigan State University and did his ophthalmology surgical training at the prestigious Harvard University. This is where the title of “Surgeon Poet” comes from. Now, what would a well-educated man with an impressive weight of achievements have to complain about? Well, here’s Dr Hall’s unveiling of the reality that a hard-working, educated black man has to face in what he calls “unspoken America.”

More than a hundred poems, Nigger for Life consists mostly of short poems, the poems range from three lines to more than two pages. Dr Hall observes the illusion of democracy, describing it instead as “…only varying degrees of tyranny.” The arrangement of this anthology is free of strict rules of poetry writing, as some poems are titled while some are not. Dr Hall says that the reason for the untitled poems is to “take you to the essence of the poem without the prejudice of a header.” He also adopts both figurative and metaphorical language in carving his deepest thoughts into poetry.

There’s a certain way he manages to straighten the disfigured conception of ‘nigger’ being a human form, when all it really is, is an idea formed and maintained by white beliefs.

Niggers are not born.

There is no innate genetic material

that multiplies and divides into a nigger

The poem evinces the narrow thinking behind this derogatory term that is still a stain on the black population.

As we read through the collection, which he suggest we read sequentially, we become aware of the delusion of freedom and the stinging existence of ongoing hypocrisy. In a poem that emphasises the title of the book he says;

Today

they don’t call you Nigger.

Well!

not loud enough for you to hear.

The brutal reality of how even though the so-called progress has been declared still lingers in the minds of the oppressors and that they still see black people through the same distorted lens. Throughout this profound and deep-seated elucidation of the hidden America, he thoroughly scrutinizes concepts such as religion, politics and the disguise they take, the nature of man, greed and hate. Through his eyes we are shown the concealed actuality of white righteousness and supremacy. He also expresses his concern about the ‘misinformation’ and ‘miseducation’ of black people, and how it contains ‘self-hate and doubt.’ Continuing along the verses we get to see the blindness of the oppressed and how that blindness preserves white power.

It is quite obvious that these thoughts are personal and some poems are direct expressions of his own experience, such as in the poem Dr Nigger and in others where the first-person voice is used. Some poems may seem like merely two lines or simple questions, yet in their naked form we find ourselves with a lot to think about and seek to answer.

Just as he has done in his field as a surgeon, he has used the art of poetry to penetrate the structure of racism in America and enucleate its hidden ills. Although written from his experience in America, the book is relevant to many parts of the world where racial prejudice is a thorn in society. The book is not just for blacks but there’s a lot that both the oppressor and the oppressed can take from it. Dr Neal Hall is undoubtedly an estimable writer and his work is of meritorious service to both the literary sphere and society at large.


Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

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Publisher: Penguin Group

Year: 2013

She had me at the opening line, Kweku dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs.” Yes, tell me more! The pleasure I derive from a story that vibrates with poetry, elegant use of language and deep emotion, is immeasurable. I guess for someone mentored by Toni Morrison and educated at Yale and Oxford we shouldn’t be surprised by Taiye Selasi’s skill with the pen. Ghana Must Go was the phrase that the Nigerians used during their removal of Ghanaian immigrants in the 1980’s. From that period the name also stuck to the striped bags (usually red, white and blue) the immigrants carried their belongings in. The story travels through the emotional and psychological maps of individuals who are pieces of a broken family.

Kweku Sai is a respected Ghanaian surgeon living in the United States with his Nigerian wife, Folasadé and their four children; Olu, the twins Taiwo and Kehinde, and Sadie. A year after a wrongful dismissal hidden from his family, he drives off and abandons his family. Unable to cope with the four kids on her own, Folasadé sends the twins to her half-brother in Nigeria where their experience leaves them bruised. The family ends up scattered around the world, each one of his children brilliant and successful yet carrying their wounds in their own different ways. All of them have been altered by the abandonment of Kweku, his absence and the broken bonds among them.

The death of their father brings them together after a period of frail contact. They reunite with their mother in Ghana where the awkwardness and tension must reach a point of breaking. After years of floating about without a grounding force, can this reunion stitch the wounds and sew back the pieces of the Sai family?

A lot of tears are shed in this book. Selasi penetrates the effects that immigration has on families – the separations and the inability to firmly place one’s roots in a particular place. Our family experiences and the love ties we break and refasten shape us in different ways and play a role in how we absorb love from the world and how we pour it out to others. Although handsomely written, it is easy to lose your way along the way as she constantly shifts the camera to different scenes and characters, in some parts to different periods. To some it could be an undesirable method but to others like myself, it is indeed an impressive style of writing that toys with the plot structure and development of characters.

Taiye Selasi

(Photo: The Wall Street Journal)

Taiye Selasi is of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin, born in 1979 in London, and raised in Boston. In 2005, she wrote an essay on what it means to be a transnational and cosmopolitan, young African, titled, What is an Afropolitan? She has published short fiction; The Sex Lives of African Girls, Driver, Aliens of Extraordinary Ability and Brunhilda in Love.


Animal Farm by George Orwell

 

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“7. All animals are equal.”

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

First published: 1945

Publisher: Penguin

During a meeting of the Manor Farm’s animals, Old Major, a prize Middle White boar, gives a speech about a dream he had where animals live happily and free from the tyranny of human beings, how they should go about achieving this and teaches them a song called “Beasts of England.” Old Major dies three nights later and three pigs, Napoleon, Squealer and Snowball develop his principle into a philosophy they call Animalism. This philosophy is then reduced to commandments which form a permanent law by which all animals should live. The animals run the farm owner, Mr Jones, off the land while the rest of the humans flee and they rename it Animal Farm. They devote themselves to working towards Old Major’s dream and the farm prospers.

Mr Jones returns to take back his farm but the animals defeat him again in a battle that would be named “The Battle of the Cowshed.” Along the passage of time, Napoleon and Snowball cross swords on the future of the farm, in terms of who will hold power over the rest of the animals. A meeting is held to vote for the building of an electricity-generating windmill. Napoleon opposes it while Snowball is for it and moves the animals with his fervent speech. Napoleon had previously taken a kennel of pups and trained them in secret into attack dogs, and he uses these now-grown dogs to drive Snowball off the farm. He then takes on leadership of the animals and declares that only pigs will make all the decisions and uses these dogs to attack anyone who is against his leadership.

All the animals, excluding the pigs, slave away and despite the fact that they are hungry, cold and tired, Napoleon’s propagandist convinces them that their great leader does all in their interest. The pigs start becoming more and more like humans – they live in Mr Jones’s house, they wear human clothes and walk upright carrying whips. Napoleon entertains a human in the house and forms an ally with him. The seven commandments are reduced to a single one that places the pigs in a superior position and the farm’s name is reverted to the old one.

From an African perspective

When I read this I couldn’t help but compare this story to the history and present of Africa, although I am aware that societies all around the world can still be compared to it. Animal Farm is an allegory of the rise to power of many dictators in our history. Old Major can be compared to the great men who dreamed of a better continent where everyone lived happily and free of the oppression that had brutally penetrated its way into the lives of African people. The pigs are the power-hungry men who promise to realise these dreams but end up being no different from the tyrants that they are supposed to get rid of.

George Orwell’s classic political fable remains significant in the present as the struggle for pre-eminence still exists, as corruption still forms the fabric of our political societies and the hypocrisy of tyrants hidden behind smiling masks still stings. Animal Farm sheds light on the tendency of those who grab power to form class structures when the correct road to take is total equality. Just as Africans seemed to have been unified in the eyes of their enemy, once they are rid of this foe, there is a classification that favours certain groups over others. Just as the rest of the animals could no longer distinguish between human and pig, we have also reached a point where we can’t tell the difference between the enemy and our leaders.

The naivety of the working class is portrayed by the common animals in the book. This is shown in how they toil and sweat, for less food and comfort. We see this in our societies in how the working class labours and grinds, only to receive meagre pay and a life far from the luxuries that the greedy minority in power gets to enjoy. In Animal Farm the use of words plays a huge role in blinding the animals from seeing the abuse they are under. There is the same propaganda as the one that Squealer uses to convince the animals that Napoleon does things for them while that’s not the case. The commandments symbolise the laws that are formulated to place leaders in a safe place that clears them from any action that goes against the wellbeing of everyone else.

I have read this book a number of times and still find it creatively plotted and written, with characters that bear a lot of weight in our lives and represent reality. I recommend it for everyone, in order for individuals to learn from it and get to make decisions that are for their own betterment. It’s an educational, thought-provoking and absolutely pleasant book to read. It’s short but satisfying.

George-Orwell

(Photo: Granta)

George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) was born in India in 1903. His family moved to England when he was four. His first article was published in 1928 while he lived in Paris and he returned to England in 1929 where he worked as a private tutor and later as a school teacher. He then worked as a bookshop assistant and later as a novel reviewer. He worked for the BBC Eastern Service from 1940 to 1943. His other works include 1984, The Road to Wigan Pier, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, Down and Out in Paris and London, Burmese Days and Homage To Catalonia. He suffered from tuberculosis and died at the age of forty-six.


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 white man 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.

igoni

(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.


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).  


London, Cape Town, Joburg by Zukiswa Wanner

“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.


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 whom 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 whom 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 whom Mr Knightley is in love with.

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.


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Published: 1958

African Writers Series

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Okonkwo is a wealthy and respected warrior of the Umuofia clan, who is known throughout all the nine villages. His achievements are driven by his fear of becoming like his father Unoka, whom he considered a spendthrift and a weak man. It is this weakness that haunts him and propels him into his hard work. He’s a clansman, a farmer, a warrior and a family provider who never shows affection or any soft emotion as that is a sign of weakness. He equates manliness to rashness.

Okonkwo is very hard on his eldest son and heir Nwoye, whom he fears shows signs of being like his grandfather, and so is hard on him in order to make a real man out of him. A serious matter arises when a daughter from his village is murdered at a market in a neighbouring village. In a settlement to avoid war, the neighbouring village compensates Umuofia with a young man and a virgin. This fifteen-year old boy, Ikemefuna, is placed in Okonkwo’s care. The boy lives with them for three years and in that time Ikemefuna becomes the ideal son to Okonkwo and his influence over Nwoye pleases him. He calls Okonkwo his father and Nwoye looks up to him as a brother.

Tragedy arrives when the oracle advises that the boy must be killed. Ogbuefi Ezedu, the oldest man in that quarter of the village pays Okonkwo a visit and advises him not to have a hand in the killing of the boy as he calls him his father. When the day arrives and Ikemefuna is taken away, Okonkwo is one of the men accompanying him to his fate. As the other men attack the boy he pleads to Okonkwo for help but he does not wish to look weak before all those men, and so he kills the boy. He sinks into depression.

Another tragedy follows when on the day of Ogbuefi’s funeral, Okonkwo’s gun accidentally explodes and kills Ogbuefi’s son. This is a crime against the earth goddess and Okonkwo must take his family into exile for seven years for atonement. He goes to his mother’s natal village Mbanta, leaving behind his buildings which are burnt and his animals are killed, in order to cleanse the village of his sin.

Later on, the arrival of missionaries begins. Their leader Mr Brown tells them that their gods are false and that worshipping more than one god is idolatrous. Mr Brown’s aim is to convert the locals but does not do so aggressively. He is later replaced by a completely different man to him, Reverend James Smith who is intolerant and strict. While he is in charge, a lot of things happen such as elders being thrown into prison. Okonkwo is furious with all that his happening and seeks war, they must fight.

His years of exile come to an end and he returns to his village but he finds that a lot has changed. His clansmen are not willing to go to war. He later kills a leader of the court messengers leading to an end no one would have expected.

Things Fall Apart is a portrayal of the clashes between the Igbo people and Nigeria’s white colonial government. Chinua Achebe did a fine work in showing a clear picture of Africans, different from what we read most of the time as a colonial account of Africans. At the end of the novel it says that the District Commissioner plans to write a book where he would write a paragraph on Okonkwo and he says how “one must be firm in cutting out details”. This shows the different perspective or account of stories before and during colonial times and writers like Chinua Achebe do justice in revealing details fairly by representing both Africanism traditions and history, and colonialism in a clearer and balanced light.

Things Fall Apart shows a struggle between change and tradition. It is still something that many individuals face, whether one should abandon traditional values and practices in the name of change. Some of the village members are excited about the opportunities that come with converting to Christianity and so they abandon their traditional beliefs and practices. The story also shows us the perceived idea of manhood through Okonkwo’s character in how he thinks rashness and anger equate to bravery, strength and manliness. The story is a true window through which we get to learn about the difficulties of abandoning ideals and beliefs and adopting new ones, about culture, traditions and language as important parts of identities and how history has been shaped.


The Godfather by Mario Puzo

Originally Published: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Date: 1969

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If you don’t imitate Don Vito Corleone when reading his dialogue in the book then you need help, and by help I mean watching the film. Yes, the whole trilogy. You will not regret it. I am a firm believer in books being better than the film adaptations but in this case I make an exception.

The Corleones are a powerful Mafia family in New York who are at war with four other Mafia families. When Don Vito Corleone is shot by men sent by the drug dealer Sollozzo, the two sons out of the five children, Sonny and Michael have to run the business with the help of Vito’s adopted son Tom Hagen who’s also his adviser. At first Michael has no desire but after the tragedy of his father things take a wild turn.

War escalates when the amateur Michael kills Sollozzo and the police officer on his payroll, Michael McCluskey. Don Vito eventually dies and Sonny’s volcanic eruptions end up getting him killed when he becomes involved in his sister’s marital affairs by teaching his brother-in-law a lesson for abusing her. After Sonny’s death Michael becomes the head of the family empire despite his desires to live a normal life with his girlfriend Kay, who then becomes his wife and mother of his children.

At first Michael wants to legitimize the family business but as the story progresses he becomes more ruthless and brutal than his father. He choreographs the murders of his enemies and has his brother-in-law killed for his involvement in the death of his brother, Sonny. His marriage takes a toll and the life of a Mafia proves to be a chain of plotting, killing, threatening, gambling with lives, and never-ending revenge and war. In the end he pays a heavy price when his enemies reach his family and kill someone very close to his heart.

The title of the book The Godfather refers to Don Vito Corleone but the central character is his son Michael Corleone whom most of the events of the story revolve around. The novel portrays the brutal world of the Mafia. It is a story of man and his power and the all that rises and falls with this power. It portrays the influence that The Don (a title that passes on from Vito, to Michael and at the end to Vincent, Sonny’s son) has on people from ground level to people sitting high up.

Mario Puzo did a good job in reflecting the true history of the Mafia world in America in a fictionalized world. The story makes for an intriguing read and at the same time offers insight into what took place in that world.

Mario Puzo

(Photo: http://www.mariopuzo.com/photoalbum/4thKcigar.jpg)

Mario Puzo was born in Hell’s Kitchen on 15 October 1920 and was an author, journalist and screenwriter. He graduated from the City College of New York and joined the United States Army Air Forces in World War II. His first two novels were The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim, followed by The Godfather, which became his best-known novel and adapted into film. Some of his many works include Fools Die, The Sicilian, The Fourth K, The Last Don and The Family, which was completed by his long-term girlfriend. Apart from novels, Mario Puzo wrote and published many other works – short stories, non-fiction, screenplays and also had video adaptations of The Godfather. He died on 2 July 1999.


Maru by Bessie Head

Heinemann, African Writers Series

Date published: 1971

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Margaret Cadmore is orphaned when her mother dies after giving birth. A white, British woman, a wife of a missionary and a teacher takes her home and raises her. The woman, Margaret Cadmore, who names the child after her takes the child as an experiment and their relationship is not that of mother and child, although there are the occasional bed-time stories and kisses. She grows up without being spared by other children a reminder of her being a Bushman. These remarks are rooted in the belief that Bushmen are lower than animals and should be treated accordingly, this includes actions such as spitting at her.

Seventeen years later, at the end of her teacher’s experiment, they part ways as the senior retires to England. The young girl gets a teaching post in a village called Dilepe. This new journey brings with it changes in her own life and in the lives of the people around her. Two men, Moleka and Maru, who have been the closest of friends find themselves in locked horns over who will get her. Both are in love with her; Moleka who has been changing women and whose heart never belonged to any of them finds himself a changed man with a changed heart because of his feelings for Margaret. Maru is more aggressive and possessive, he finds himself sharing the same visions and dreams as Margaret, hers translating into her drawings.

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(Photo: Mawande ‘Manez’ Sobethwa. https://www.facebook.com/manez134)

Her friendship with one of the teachers, Dikeledi who’s Maru’s sister strengthens. Through the social prejudices and frowns that she gets because she is a Masarwa, Dikeledi sees her as a person and continues to have a good relationship with her. The village of Dilepe is no different from the children that used to torment her in school. This is a place where her people are slaves and her being a teacher brings a stir. Margaret feels the same way about Moleka but nothing is done about it. It is when Dikeledi confides in her about something significant that happened between her and Moleka that Margaret’s feels the world completely shattering beneath her and that allows Maru’s engineered ways to have her to take place successfully.

This novel reveals the depth of discrimination that took place in Botswana and how black people were treating the Masarwa people the same way white people treated blacks. It is a story of friendships formed through seeing humanness before race and at the same time friendships lost because of love.

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(Photo: http://study.com/academy/lesson/bessie-head-biography-short-stories-books.html)

Bessies Head was born in South Africa in 1937, a mixed race child from a white mother and a black father. Her own life experiences bled into her novels. She trained as a teacher and four years after teaching she worked as a journalist for Drum magazine. Circumstances in her life set her off to teach in Botswana where she took refuge for fifteen years until her refugee status was changed and she was granted citizenship.

She has written When Rain Clouds Gather, A Question of Power, The Collector of Treasures, Serowe; Village of The Rain Wind, A Woman Alone, Tales of Tenderness, Power and The Cardinals.  She passed away in 1986 at the age of 49. A master of literature, with her work still holding a significant place in African literature.


Another Sun by Timothy Williams

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Publisher: Soho Press

Date: April 2013

Timothy Williams was born in London and has lived in France, Italy and Romania where he worked for the British Council. He currently resides on the island of Guadeloupe where he teaches. The CWA award-winning author has written five crime novels set in Italy and two (including Another Sun) set in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

Before Another Sun was published in New York by Soho Crime it was first written in French, titled Un autre soleis, and published by Rivages in Paris. The novel is set in the island of Guadeloupe in 1980 when the it was subject to French law and loyal to the French Republic.

Anne Marie Laveaud, the French-Algerian juge d’instruction (investigative magistrate), is new to the Caribbean island and is confident that she can succeed in this new home. She is assigned to a murder case of a white plantation-owner called Raymond Calais whose body was found in a pond.
The immediate suspect of the murder is Hégésippe Bray, a black, elderly ex-convict who has returned home after spending much of his life in a penal colony. This suspicion is based on the threats to kill Calais that had been made by Hégésippe after the former had stolen land he had purchased from his former employer, Calais’s father.

The case turns out to be messier than Laveaud had anticipated. In an island that is still haunted by colonialism and where racial conflicts are alive and breathing, she encounters many battles in her effort to investigate the murder. Her frustrations are fuelled by a mix of racial, gender and political issues, domestic terrorism and possibly voodoo. Through her interviews she discovers that Calais was not liked by many people.
However, through the difficulties that are thrown at her, she keeps a firm grip on what she believes about the case. As it case unfolds, she is asked to accept it as an open-closed case and to forget about it but her strive for justice and truth will not let her accept the advice. She goes on to unravel the mystery but in the process her own life crumbles and she places her life and that of her son in danger.

Williams has created characters that are precise and direct, the mystery does not lie entirely on who they are but rather on the events that take place. Their external conflicts play a major role in revealing the events of the story. The story is mostly carried forward by the dialogue, which shows the author’s brilliant narrative skills of leaving us to fill in the blanks without completely losing us.
The plot is sprinkled with some false leads and the reader is at times misled – the art of a good mystery writer. Some readers may find the French words distracting as they are not translated but they actually fall into place with the context of the story and in that way the reader stays on the boat.

Williams demonstrates an ability to address sensitive and untidy issues in an interesting and gripping way, keeping the reader turning the pages with a hunger for more. For people who do not know anything about the history and events of Guadeloupe, the theme gives an insight on the Caribbean island in the 1980’s.

Another Sun is entertaining, insightful and enthralling. By the unforeseen end you will have to pull your jaw back up and run to get a copy of the sequel, The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe.


Book Review: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings 

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Author: Maya Angelou

Publisher: USA Random House (1969), Virago House (1984)

Marguerite Annie Johnson, known as Dr Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri on 4 April 1928. She was the second child of two, with an older brother, Bailey Junior whom she was close to and described as her ‘Kingdom Come’. Maya went on to become one of the most respected and influential voices in literature, poet, memoirist, dancer, educator, actress, filmmaker, producer, dramatist and civil rights activist.

She has published seven autobiographies, three essays, thirteen works of poetry, two children’s books, two picture books and two cookery books.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of her autobiography collection. The journey in the book begins when she and her brother are sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps after the end of their parents’ marriage. Their father later fetches them and takes them with to St. Louis to live with their mother, where life proves to be a far cry from the life they are used to back in Stamps.

She poignantly describes her trauma at a young age of being raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was later found dead. They are sent back to Stamps and later back to live with their mother again.

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(Photo: http://blackdoctor.org/444210/maya-angelou-dies/)

This story richly depicts the hostility and challenges that spill from racial discrimination. It is also a portrayal of poverty, overcoming personal challenges and finding her voice in poetry, drama and dance. Not only does a reader cry with her through the journey but also laughs with her as she exquisitely describes the laughter and beauty of her experiences with her family and her achievements.

Maya’s absorbing autobiography captures seventeen years of her life through societal challenges, her struggles and her merriment. She ends on a happy note with the birth of her son.

Unlike a lot of autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a piece of art which reveals her creativity and her ability to detail true life in a creative and engrossing way.