Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett (2015)

book385Wow. This novel is quite a ride as we see a modern-day Lagos, Nigeria, through the eyes of a young black man who’s struggling to make his way in the world around him. He’s a pretty average person, but what makes the story strong is that on the day in question, he wakes up a white man (except for his bottom, as the title admits). From then on, the narrative offers lots of questions about identity, possibility, and the world around him.

As Furo, the protagonist, lives his first day as a white man with red hair and green eyes, he learns about white privilege and learns to take full advantage of that as he determines to lose his former life. To his family (parents and sister), he has simply disappeared and as they search grimly for him, worried for his safety, Furo is working out how he needs to live successfully in a world that he has only seen from the outside. People are confused about him as he speaks pidgin and knows the black culture, but to them, he is an oyibo (a white person). The question is: How can he be both white and Nigerian?

It’s a simmering plot exploring how fluid identity can be on many levels, and who owns that identity – is it the world around that determines your identity based on your looks or can you overcome that to become someone other? As the story progresses, the narrative arc continues to boil until in the last third of the book, it explodes bringing you the reader along for the ride.

It’s an experimental book that plays with unreliable narrators, fluid POVs, and time, so it’s not a story to daydream through really. I’ve read that it’s based on The Metamorphosis by Kafka as satire, but haven’t read that so not familiar with it. Reviews relating the parallels are a bit grumpy about it though.

There are a lot of things at play throughout the book — truth/deception, real vs. not real – and quite a bit of it is written in Nigerian pidgin slang which is pretty fun to read (once you get the hang of it). (Speaking of which, a glossary would have been pretty useful.) It’s also written in British English with British spellings (aluminium vs. aluminum, settee vs. couch etc.) so you’ll need to keep your wits about you but if you pay attention, you’ll be paid in dividends by the read.

So, not an easy read but certainly a fun and interesting one if you’re up for the challenge.

Nigerian words that I learned:

  • Okada (motorbike taxi)
  • Batakari (type of shirt)
  • Oyibo (white person)
  • Buka (roadside food stall)
  • Fufu (not sure but might be food)
  • Eba (type of food)

Homecoming – Yaa Gyazi (2016)

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“Homecoming” is a debut novel that has set the interwebs and reviewers into a bit of spin about how fantastic it is, and so when I spotted it on the shelf, it leaped (leapt?) into my little grubby hands. It’s been hailed as one of the newest darlings of the literary world and as a new tour de force in African-American (or African?) literature.

However one chooses to describe it, it’s a good read. The narrative arc follows the fortunes (or not) of a family in Ghana tracing how slavery impacts its path over the centuries starting back in the 18

Ghana_africa-map Told from an omniscient point of view and traveling through time and across continents, the story starts with two half-sisters who follow very different paths through life unknowingly, one living a life of relative wealth after marrying a white man and one who ends up on the opposite side of the coin, but both affected by the slave trade. The location common to both is that of Cape Coast Castle, one sister living on the upper floors in safety and comfort whilst her sister suffers on the dungeon floor in terrible cramped conditions with the others waiting for their travel on the ships to America or other colony elsewhere.

So it’s not that new a narrative structure or in how it’s presented, but it is well written. I am wondering if many of the other reviewers out on the web are inexperienced with slavery stories and perhaps that is how it’s had this great reception. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book but not completely unlike others out there. (Am I being mean? I’m trying not to be. I just wasn’t so wowed to quite the same extent as others.)

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(So, I’ve only just now realized that the patriotic English song, “Rule Britannia!”, contains a reference to the slave trade. Partway through, the line goes “And Britons never…shall be slaves”, and growing up hearing this song, I had always thought this to be a call of maintaining national independence etc., when, as I think about it now, it’s more likely a reference to the slave trade. (D’oh.) The song was written in the 1740’s which was slap bang in the middle of slave industrial years for England so it makes sense. Hard to believe that I’ve only just put this together…)

In researching that song, it turns out to have a strong link with the Royal Navy who played a vital role in maintaining the independence of England, the island nation, and over time, the lyrics were edited from being an exhortation (“Britannia! Rule the waves!”) to more of a statement (“Britannia rules the waves!”) and which reflected the historical changes over time as England became more of a nautical powerhouse. This links with the Victorian phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” which refs the fact that a lot of the world was pink on the world map (signifying British territories or colonies) and the colonies were spread out in such a way that regardless of whatever the time was, it was daylight somewhere in a colony at the time.

Huh. So now I know… Cool.

Back to the book: So, this is a multi-thread narrative from both the perspectives of the enslaved (or soon to be enslaved) and those who run the slave industry, so there are interesting power/powerless dichotomies to look at. It also covers some of the early Ghanaian tribal warfare which also adds another complex layer as humans (especially women/brides) also had a price, but in a different way. How is this way more acceptable than another way…?

So lots to think about. This was a quick read and a good one. Not quite sure why it’s getting all the hoopla vs. other authors out there, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, here you go.

Sozaboy – Ken Saro-Wiwa (1985)

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One of the acclaimed pieces of African literature, “Sozaboy” is a rather harrowing tale that follows Mene, a young tribal man who enthusiastically signs up with the army to protect his country from the enemy, a term that evolves throughout the book. (Who is the real enemy? I wondered at the end.)

Mene (or Sozaboy – “Soldier boy” said in the book’s dialect of “Rotten English”) grows up in a decent-sized town in Nigeria and as a young man, hears the siren song of military service when he learns of an invading group of soldiers coming their way. He is very impressed by the smart uniform and formation marching of the soldiers who come through town, and so he signs up to serve. Eastern unrest in the country had led to military intervention, and he is delighted (or “prouded” as the dialect phrases it) when he puts on his new togs and gets his own gun.

However, as Sozaboy is exposed to brutal NCOs and hard training exercises, his dream of being a soldier starts to get tarnished. Later, when he is exposed to war horrors and death, he really starts to question if he has done the right thing. As one of his older friends had said in the village earlier, “war is war.”

So, Sozaboy continues to serve and describes his time, and it’s an involving reading experience (at least for me). The whole book is written in what the author describes as “Rotten English” which is a strong dialect comprised of Nigerian words, English slang words, and then some British English (which means that it uses “big grammar words” that sound very official).

This dialect takes some getting used to, but it is really an effective tool to enable the reader to experience what Sozaboy experiences. The POV is through Sozaboy’s eyes and thoughts, and as the book progresses, we learn and then understand how his opinion changes as he spends longer and longer with the army. This read rather reminded me of “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque (1928) which also follows a naïve soldier recruit as he is exposed to mental and physical stress during his time at the front. (This time, the front was WWI.)

“I do not know. Praps they will set us free. Praps they will come and kill us all one time. Everything is in the hand of God. Because war is war. Anything can happen.”

As mentioned, the dialect can be hard to decipher but you learn to get the hang of it and there is, thankfully, a glossary at the back which I found to be invaluable. (You’d be ok without using the glossary, but it definitely helps you get the full picture as the narrative continues.) In researching this further, I learned that the author created this dialect as a way to reflect the feelings of dislocation that Sozaboy (and others) were feeling.

At this time in Nigeria, there were the Biafran Wars when the eastern part of the country was fighting for its independence which led to much conflict, corruption and unrest. Some Nigerian people felt that the country was falling apart and being split into two and families were cleaved by which side of the fight you were on. Sozaboy’s language is really an effective tool to show this split: it’s not Nigerian, it’s not English, it’s not British English. It’s a mix of several languages and yet it’s not the same, just as Nigeria was now a mix of tribes, separate and with conflicting beliefs and values.

Nigeria gained independence from colonial Britain in 1960, so this new situation unbalanced governmental forces leading to several military coups in 1966. By the time that the civil war was officially over, estimates of the number of dead ranged between 1 and 3 million, from warfare, disease and starvation.

Ken_Saro-WiwaThis was such a powerful read, but can’t deny that it was a book that needed some effort to complete due to the dialect mostly. What also threw me off was the occasional appearance of an African spirit who would impact Sozaboy’s actions and world. This got *slightly* confusing, but sorted it out in the end.

Author Kenule “Ken” Saro-Wiwa was a writer and activist who became very visible for organizing a non-violent campaign against the oil businesses in Nigeria and for openly criticizing the Nigerian government (which did not go over well). He was eventually tried in a military tribunal and then hung in 1995 which created an international outcry.

This was a powerful read for me and I enjoyed it (if “enjoyed” is the right word there).

(And if you’re interested in reading some other African books, LitHub has a great list of titles in an article by Aaron Baby.)

Catch-Up Time…

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And it’s time to catch you guys up a bit on the inner circle of life here at Just One More Page… (Can you stand the suspense? I thought you could.)

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So – my face pain has made its return back to chez moi. (See my earlier post about my trigeminal neuralgia journey here.)

START OF MEDICAL TALK HERE: (Just leap over this if it’s really boring. I won’t mind. I’m just trying to bring more awareness to this pretty rare medical situation, but I understand if you’d rather do something else than read about it. Just jump down a few parags and normal blogging will resume.)

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It seems that my Christmas brain surgery hasn’t really worked as my pain has returned. (It actually returned after about six weeks, so mid-February.) It’s a tad disappointing as that Microvascular Decompression (MVD) brain surgery usually has an 80% success rate.

(Excuse me a second or two whilst I use some creative language to express my feelings about this: *(^&^*))*%#@@^&*. This could go on for much longer, but I fear not everyone would appreciate that, and I think you probably may empathize with that frustration.)

But so, as this MVD didn’t seem to work, there are a few other options still to try and my surgeon’s willing to try, so at the end of the month, I’m having a Radio-Frequency Rhizotomy which is where you’re put under very fast anesthesia, the surgeon sticks a needle into the soft palate of your upper mouth (close to where the recalcitrant nerve is) and then wakes you briefly to see if they are hitting the right nerve in the right place, you say yay or nay, then the doc puts you back under into the world of anesthesia again, they do some electrical stimulation (I think) that damages the nerve and then you wake up all nice, happy and pain-free (I hope). That’s the plan for the end of the month, so I’m hoping that that works. If not, we’ll find another approach. Fingers crossed.

END OF MEDICAL TALK.

Onto happier things:

Spring-Break

It’s Spring Break on campus this week, which means that the campus is mostly empty (of both students and faculty) and so life is much calmer both in the office and outside. This has been fabbo great and I’m managing to get some work done on one or two of those “One Day…” projects. It’s really cool, actually.

Outside work, all is going smoothly as well. The weather is a bit bipolar at the moment: freezing temps when we wake up, and then 70’s when we leave the office at 5p so it’s sort of “ski-jackets and shorts” type of season. 🙂  Certainly no complaining from my camp though as just a month or two more, and it will be hot temps and they stay around for months (at least until Oct most years). I am really enjoying this shoulder season of medium temps!

Reading, naturally: I’ve just finished two books, for which I was going to grace you with some mini-reviews but as I started writing about them, I discovered I had more to say. (You know how it is sometimes.) So – review of one of them is still to come.

book374The other title that I finished up the other was “Saturday for Funerals” by Unity Dow and Max Essex, and this title covers the state of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana. (I’ve been having some rather *serious* reading lately, haven’t I?)

The title “Saturdays are for Funerals” comes from a reference that in Botswana, funerals are traditionally held on Saturdays and for a while there, there were so many funerals happening (due to HIV) that it was difficult to do chores or anything else. So many people (and their extended families) were being affected that it had become part of the regular routine of the week, like work.

This book was actually a more optimistic read than I had thought it was going to be. Botswana, as a country, has had some effective governance during the time when this book was written, and both of the authors are deeply involved with HIV/AIDS, Dow as a judge (helping families w HIV/AIDS) and then Essex as an infectious disease physician at Harvard. They both have worked together on various projects, and the book had sections written by both of them throughout its chapters.

I’m happy to read work by co-authors if the different pieces flow together in a coherent way, but I’m afraid that this wasn’t the case for this book. Unity Dow is a judge in Gabarone, a large city in Botswana, and she works very closely with city residents (and families) and her writing was more of a casual nature and detailed the cases and how they were adjudicated. Max Essex, on the other hand, is a physician with Harvard and writes to a more academic audience, so his approach is clinical, scientific-based and removed, so the two authors had quite a contrast between them.

Map_BotswanaFor the most part, I didn’t mind having such vastly different approaches to this large public health problem – there’s multiple sides to the issues, after all. However, after a while, the contrast became a barrier to the reading experience, and I rather wish that a neutral editor had come in and smoothed out the parts a bit. Still, it was good information, and it was great to have a book about the proactive steps that one African country is doing to address HIV (and other public health issues), and how they have been working.

So, a bit of a mixed bag here, but if you’re interested in HIV/AIDS or other public health challenges (and some successes), this would be a good read. Botswana was greatly impacted by HIV early in the epidemic years – WHO had estimated that 85% of fifteen-year-olds in this country would die of AIDS – and it’s good to hear positive news about how this was (and is being) addressed by their health care providers and educators.

book370Another quick read was Tattoo Street Style by the blog The Tattoorialist. I had thought it was going to be more of a graphic design look at actual tattoos, and there was some of that, but it was mostly a look at people who are serious tattoo people who are into major body art. So there was lots of tattoo pictures, and then some extra about the person who was actually wearing the tattoos. Interesting – just not the book that I had thought it was going to be (and that’s ok.)

 

 

So life is good here at Just One More Page. Read on, my friends, read on.

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February 2016 – Reading Wrap Up

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So February was African-American History Month, and as usual, it was a month of learning loads of new things for me as I engaged in reading focused on the lives of African-Americans and POC. As usual, I enjoyed the heck out of it so I’ll definitely be doing this again next year.

Here’s the list of the titles that I have read lately that were linked with that theme:

I also attended some cultural events held at university over the month:

And February was a fun month! I’ve learned a lot about the world in which we all live and opened my mind with some (helpfully) challenging reads. Definitely going to continue reading more diversely this year as I’m really enjoying the whole thing.

Read on, my friends.

Reading Plan: African-American History Month

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Just as I did last year in February, I’m interested in focusing my reading on books about POCs (specifically people of African descent) and by POCs (again of African descent). So I’ve pulled together a small pile of books from my TBR (plus 1-2 from the library), and thus begins JOMP’s recognition and celebration of Black History Month.

Af-AM books

From bottom to top:

  • The Known World – Edward P. Jones (F)
  • The Color Purple – Alice Walker (F)
  • Native Son – Richard Wright (F)
  • Saturday is for Funerals – Unity Dow/Max Essex (NF)
  • Kaffir Boy – Mark Mathabane (NF)
  • They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky – Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak (with Judy A. Bernstein)
  • Bud, Not Buddy – Christopher Paul Curtis (YA F)
  • Mighty be our Powers – Lemah Gbowee (NF)

Not pictured include:

  • Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (NF)

(And the two rectangles are titles whose authors don’t meet the criteria that I’ve set for this month. I’ll read them at some point, but just not at the moment.)

I’m excited to do this again this year, and I’m looking forward to some great reads!

 

Aya: Love in Yop City – Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (2013)

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This was another good read from Abouet and Oubrerie. (See my review of the first volume here.) Still set on the Ivory Coast in Western Africa, the story continues to follow Aya (now a young woman at university) and her small circle of friends. This Aya is a more mature character, although still young in situations, and she works her way through various issues: boyfriend problems, love and friendship issues, loyalty and other weighty subjects, all of which are handled in a realistic fashion. (Another reason that I enjoy the Aya series: she’s a female role model with problems that a lot of people worldwide can recognize regardless of where they live.)

Aya now has more grown-up challenges to deal with: sexual harassment from an authority figure, rumor and speculation, LBQT issues – and so the story is gradually woven together with several threads. Along side these, the narrative also jumps from city to village in Cote D’Ivoire but also to Paris at times. So not only does the reader have to contend with a large number of fairly random characters, the story also jumps very suddenly from an African village to the arrôndisements of Paris without much explanation.

It’s a lot to keep up with, dear reader, and I must confess that when I had finished my initial reading, I was mightily confused as to who was who and why they were doing what they were doing with whom they were doing it and where they were doing it.

(To prevent this experience, I would recommend that (a) you read Aya Volume I fairly close to reading this volume, and (b) you study the friends/family diagrams at the front of the book.)

So although I was so confused about everything and everyone in the story when I had finished, I still went back and read it through again. Why? Because my initial experience of enjoying the read of Volume I had me convinced that I was missing a lot and should read it again, hoping that the narrative would make more sense this time around. It did. In fact, it was a completely different reading experience this second time around, and I was glad I had taken the time to do that. Learning who the characters were and how they related to one another was like unlocking a code to the narrative so I highly suggest that you take the time. LFMF.

As with Aya Volume I, this was an enjoyable read about a smaller country in Africa during a time when it was fairly stable both economically and politically speaking, and where its residents enjoyed fairly normal lives with fairly average concerns and not the huge staggering problems (a la LiveAid) that one usually associates with the continent such as HIV/AIDS, hunger and drought.

I am so glad that I stayed the course and read it through that second time. Hopefully, you won’t have to do a second read, but if you do, just know that it’s worth it. Great art work as well.

 

March 2015 Reading Review

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For March 2015, I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

  • Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude – Amy Bloom (essays on gender) (NF 2003) (no blog post but fascinating nevertheless)
  • So Long a Letter – Mariama Bâ (F 1980)
  • The Girl with the Green Eyes – Edna O’Brien (F 1962)
  • Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography – Andrew Heifer/Randy DuBurker (GN/NF 2006) (no blog post)
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley – Alex Haley (NF 1965) – DNF (50%) (no blog post due to time, but fascinating nevertheless)
  • Little Bee – Chris Cleave (F 2008)
  • Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid (F 1983)
  • Ethel & Ernest – Raymond Briggs (GN-NF 1998)
  • Fungus the Bogeyman – Raymond Briggs (GN 1977)
  • Midnight Sun – Ben Towle (GN 2007)
  • The Tale of One Bad Rat – Bryan Talbot (GN 1995)

Total number of books read in March: 11

Total number of pages read: 1,354 pages (av. 135 pages)

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 4 NF (including 2 graphic non-fiction books) and 7 F (including 3 graphic novels). 1 DNF NF.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 6 library books and 5 owned books. 0 e-books this month (although one in progress). (Total of 11 books off TBR this year.)

Little Bee – Chris Cleave (2008)

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Although I expect that a large number of people have already read this book, if you haven’t, you’ll be doing yourself a solid if you go and do so right now. This is a great read – strong narrative, great characters, and amazing character development.

I’d like to tell you more, but I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll wreck the plot for you and I really don’t want to do that and ruin this reading experience.

Suffice to say, that it’s about two women from two very different places whose lives overlap with enormous ramifications. I found it very hard to put down, and I would think that you may have a similar experience.
And that’s all I can say, really.

Go. Now. Read.

So Long a Letter – Mariama Bâ (1980)

book333“…the path of life is not smooth; one is bruised by its sharp edges…”

This is an epistolary novel (swoon) written with the goal of bringing attention to women’s rights in Senegal and it’s certainly a powerful novel. The narrative is a collection of letters from the POV of a newly widowed wife whose husband has just died leaving two wives (herself and a much younger much newer one) and it gives a clear-eyed perspective into what it’s like to live as a woman in a polygamous culture. Her friend (to whom the letters are written) elects to leave her husband when he takes a second wife, even though doing so puts her at an economic and societal disadvantage — she must do what she must do to maintain her dignity. The narrator, on the other hand, has elected to stay with her husband when he chooses to take a second wife (although she hates having to accept this), and it is this comparison of the two Senegalese women’s lives that form the basis of the narrative structure.

senegalThe narrator’s husband has been married to her for more than 12 years – they have children and an established life together – and the new wife he takes is one of her daughter’s friends, much younger and prettier and now very much spoiled by her husband’s wealth (developed, I might add, by the support of his wife #1). Her husband now ignores his #1 family and wife (with his 12 children), and as you might expect, the book simmers with the anger of wife #1 as she relates the story of her life, both before wife #2 and after.

With the husband now dead, both wives are in the 40 days of Islamic required mourning, and this leaves ample time to meditate on her life so far. It’s a powerful construct.

Bâ writes as tightly as a spring ready to be released, and describes life in Senegal extremely well. Life in both the city and the rural villages, the early stages of the labor movement (which is what her husband has done for a career), the machinations of politics, the rights of women and children, and the oncoming unstoppable force of the end of Colonial Rule and changing societal roles – all of these mean that a New Africa is on the way whether Old Africa is ready or not.

I adored this book, although it was not an easy read subject-wise, but the pure emotion that was elicited via the text was incredible. I’m not sure what else (if anything) Bâ has written, but I will be looking for her name from now on. Highly recommended.

(Above) - Mariama Ba.

(Above) – Mariama Ba.