Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas/Nathar Puthu Varuda Valthukkal!

Still not done with the Quran, so I'll just post about the book I gave my boyfriend:

It's a picture book! Captions in both English and Tamil, available for just 395 rupees at Flipkart, and for considerably more from Amazon.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sunday book market at Daryaganj!

Not even 3/4 of the way through the Quran, 'cos I'm rushing deadlines (and anyway my iBooks is acting funny now I'm back in Singapore).

So I'll fill this post with images of the lovely Sunday second-hand book market in New Delhi, in the district of Daryaganj, just outside the Jamaa Masjid. Mostly classics and textbooks, as you can see...

But there's some cool stuff hidden in there.

...even an entire section devoted to erotic literature!

Most of this cost from 50 cents to S$4. Only trouble was limiting myself, reminding myself that I had to cart all this shit back home.

They might say print publishing is dying, but its fruits will be with us in Asia for some time to come. Yay for paperbacks!

Friday, December 9, 2011

I wanted to buy a Guru Granth Sahib in Amritsar...

... but the only full English translation available as like, five mega-thick volumes long, with old and crinkled covers. The bookstore owner at the Golden Temple had to present it on a folding book stand when he wanted to show it off: everything's in the original Gurmukhi script, the Latinised transliteration, and English so you get the sound of the original poetry unadulterated for home worship.

Luckily, there was also an introductory book of extracts for dilettantes like me, selling at 80 rupees (20% off the cover price, equivalent to roughly S$2!). Will skim through it on the plane, maybe, since it's easier going than my other holiday reading: Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and the Quran (halfway through now!).

Did finish Victor Pelevin's Omon Ra, though. 'Sgood!

Now, could I ask you folks: what should I read for my India book? Kalidasa's Shakuntala? Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses? Mahasweta Devi? The Penguin edition of the Upanisads? Chetan Bhagat's 2 States? Or the Guru Granth Sahib?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Progress update

I'm only about a quarter of the way through the Quran, which I'm actually reading off a .pdf file on my iPhone, so I'm temporarily leaving you with this TED talk from another, more committed Quran reader:

Incidentally I'm also in India with my mother: we're currently in an obscenely lovely heritage hotel that would quite probably coincide with the Muslim vision of paradise. Lucky us!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book 83, Oman: "The Sultan's Shadow" by Christiane Bird

Y'know, I actually own a book given out by the Omani Consulate - one of those propaganda, boo-yeah, look how prosperous we've become since the modernising force of Sultan Qaboos books. Received it as a door gift back when they'd just sailed the Jewel of Muscat to our shores.

But of course, I've chosen this book instead:

And guess what? Despite the National Library classifying it under "Oman", only a third of it actually takes place in the country - the story's focussed instead on the period after Sultan Seyyid Said and his descendants moved the capital of their empire from Muscat to Zanzibar, all the way down in present-day Tanzania.

But dear me, this book is terribly interesting. I should've read it before I started my East African journey, not after: it brings the world that Abdulrazak Gurnah describes to life; this Arab/Swahili/Indian/European world of slavery and debts and faraway colonial powers.

The author isn't just interested in communicating the cause-and-effect of history: she's fascinated by all the little stories and details of the era, which is why she meanders into side-tales of Ali bin Muhammad and the Zanj Rebellion (the greatest slave revolt in world history); of David Livingstone and Tippu Tip and Henry Morton Stanley; and of course of the Princess Salme, who eloped pregnant to marry a German businessman, turning her back on her faith and becoming the world's first-known Arab woman to write an autobiography.

Truth is, I think Christiane Bird extends the narrative a little too long: Salme ceased to be a sympathetic character for me quite early on (she was an apologist for slavery, among other character flaws), and the various threads of history told out of sequence do strain the mind a wee bit.

But now at least I have some understanding of what the East African slave trade entailed (the author objects to the term "Arab slave trade", given that we don't say "European slave trade"), and that old Oman truly was a glorious place with surprisingly enlightened leaders and a still rather tolerant form of Islam in its culture. That's education, baby.

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Representative quote: Swahili clairvoyants were called in. Many lived in the most remote areas of the island, but they were tracked down by slaves and brought to the palace by boat, horseback, or foot.

Among them was a prophetess "of a quite unnatural corpulence," who claimed to have an unborn child inside her who could foretell the future. Arriving at the palace one afternoon, the woman told the worried family that her omiscient child, who had been living under her heart for years, could see from the tops of the mountains to the depths of the seas. And then, in a high squeaky voice, the "child" described three sailing ships, from the vantage point of the tallest mast, and outlined in detail what every single person on board was doing. Apparently, Seyyid Said was still alive and well. The family rejoiced and the prophetess ordered that a myriad of sacrifices be made. Gladly, the family obeyed, slaughtering animals and distributing meat, cloth, and rice among the woman's followers and the poor.

At the time, Salme and everyone else in the palace believed in the miraculous child. Only later, while living in Germany, did Salme realize that the woman was a ventriloquist.

Next book: The Quran, from Saudi Arabia.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book 82, Yemen: "I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced" by Nujood Ali

And thus we begin West Asia, with a little light reading! And before you think I'm being facetious about the terribly serious issue of child marriage, I'll have you know that this book is (quite appropriately, when you think about it) written as if targeted towards children, written by proxy to explain every single aspect of Yemeni everyday life to foreigners aged 10 or above: the recipe for ful, the rituals of Ramadan, the wording of Al-Fatiha.

Of course I'm suspicious of the agenda: first published as Moi Nojoud, 10 ans, divorcée, it rehearses plenty of clichés of protecting oppressed Asian women from evil Asian men, made all the more insidious by the ventriloquising tactics of "co-author" Delphine Minoui, who writes through the voice of the oppressed rather than overtly exposing herself as the outsider. (Yes, yes, I know how easily interviewees' words can be crafted to fit a desired image; I've done it myself as a reporter, frequently.)

But then it manages to elude some of those clichés - it's not white people saving Nujood, it's the nice Muslim judges and the nice women's rights lawyer Shada Nasser, the foreign journalists come in only later, and pretty much all the urbane Yemenis she tells her story to are appalled. Plus, there's an intro and outro in Minoui's voice, delicately explaining the background of the nation and Nujood's later quandaries (she wasn't able to stay in her new aid organisation-funded school because of family troubles; her dad still can't find work, her mum is still depressed beyond functionality, her brothers still blame her for shaming the family).

And hell, Nujood's a heroine. Seriously, how many little girls in her position have the guts to run away from their rape and abuse and name their oppressors in court? Plus, she's inspired other girls to follow suit, and has influenced changes in law. Plus, it seems she's been terribly sweet-spirited all through the process.

You'll have to excuse my earlier skepticism. You see, Singapore's undergone social turmoil because of the Western world's moral panic over child brides: namely the case of Maria Hertogh, the Dutch girl adopted into a Muslim Indonesian family and married to her apparent satisfaction and consent at the age of 13, when she'd had her menses and everything already (which Nujood had not). Hertogh's birth mother found her again and successfully sued to get her back into Christendom, against her will. Age of consent and marriageability is a culturally determined thing, dammit; raising both reduces the chances of abuse but there are loads of other factors causing the abuse in the first place.

Ah, there's a lot to blabber on about this issue. Need to get some sleep.

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Representative quote: Yes, I've made up my mind. When I grow up, I'll be a lawyer, like Shada, to defend other little girls like me. If I can, I'll propose that the legal age for marriage be raised to eighteen. Or twenty. Or even twenty-two! I will have to be strong and tenacious. I must learn not to be afraid of looking men right in the eye when I speak to them. In fact, one of these days I'll have the courage to tell Aba that I don't agree with him when he says that, after all, the Prophet married Aisha when she was only nine years old. Like Shada, I will wear high heels and I will not cover my face. That niqab - you can't breathe under it! BUt first things first: I will have to do my homework well. I must be a good student, so that I can hope to go to college and study law. If I work hard, I'll get there.

Next book: Christiane Bird's The Sultan's Shadow, regarding Oman.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Book 81, Djibouti: "In the United States of Africa" by Abdourahman A. Waberi

And it’s my last book from East Africa! Was originally gonna do Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti, which would’ve been terribly informative about the contemporary culture and politics of the coastal nation; the book I’ve chosen is by an actual Djiboutian and tells me nothing at all.

You see, it’s set in an alternate reality where Africa, rather than the USA/European Union, is the dominant world power; where the West and Japan are lands of starving wartorn barbarians while fatcat consumerist Africans gorge themselves on Hadji Das ice cream and Haile Wade movies.

Plus, barely any of the tale takes place in Djibouti itself – the heroine’s an orphaned white girl called Malaika (née Marianne), adopted by an Eritrean doctor, growing up in the wealthy metropolis of Asmara. Shades of Hannah Pool, huh? There’s even a chapter where Malaika flies to backward, fly-infested France in search of her birth mother.

No idea why some critics call the book “hopeful”, because it's basically a dystopia: even with black and white roles reversed, the world is as exploitative and evil as ever. There's no glowing future presented, not even a sense of homecoming - instead, Malaika retches into the filthy waters of the Seine and absolves her guilt over the whole thing by stuffing her broken-toothed guide into a globalization-doctrine-themed university.

But, as said critics note, it's rare find such humour and satire in African lit. Waberi (and many Francophone African writers) eschew the realist, information-imparting agenda that Anglophone readers adore because they want to learn something about that distant impoverished region. Instead, he's grabbing every chance to show off his erudition, creating a vast mindscape of this new cultural world where there are bustling stock markets on Lumumba Street, where Robert Marley is revered as an established lyric poet, where human rights activists receive the Arafat Peace Prize and writers receive the Sisulu Award and Miriam Makeba is mauled by a giant gorilla in the movie King Kong. (There's a Maryse Condé Bookstore, too!)

Mind you, this isn't all about the workable alternate history: there's no rough what-if timeline presented as in Orson Scott Card's The Redemption of Christopher Columbus or Wong Hoy Cheong's Re:Looking. There's some reference to the imperial powers of Makonnen (an Ethiopian Emperor, surely) and the voyage of Mansa Musa, not to mention the devastation of the Nazi holocaust in Europe. But a clear timeline? Not there; it's all about the concept.

And you know what? It's fun. Waberi's playing such crazy mental gymnastics that he forces you to join in: you realise how hard it is to remember that Malaika is white and her well-to-do parents are black and that her impoverished wrinkled birth mother Célestine is white etc; it's hard to picture grungy France and Helvetian refugees wandering the streets of Tadjoura; we've a double-take when we think about the politics of penniless Eastern European waifs becoming sought-after prostitutes in Alexandria, partly because it's imaginable even in our world.

Of course all this subversion comes from Waberi's anger about the clichés of Africanness; save-the-world aid programs and starving children and wars. But how self-aware is he about the problematics of this reversal? But this is a pretty good way to round off the continent for the time being: a manic howl, twisting its received images into knots.

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Representative quote:
Some of them cut and run, wander around, get exhausted, and then brusquely give up, until they are sucked into the void. Prostitutes of every sex, Monte Carlians or Vaticanians but others too, wash up on the Djerba beaches and the cobalt-blue bay of Algiers. These poor devils are looking for the bread, rice, or flour distributed by Afghan, Haitian, Laotian, or Sahelian aid organizations. Ever since our world has been what it is, little French, Spanish, Batavian, or Luxembourgian schoolchildren, hit hard by kwashiorkor, leprosy, glaucoma, and poliomyelitis, survive only with food surpluses from Vietnamese, North Korean, or Ethiopian farmers.
These warlike tribes with their barbaric customs and deceitful, uncontrollable moves keep raiding the scorched lands of the Auvergne, Tuscany or Flanders, when they're not shedding the blood of their atavistic enemies - Teutons, Gascons or backward Iberians - for the slightest little thing, for rifles or trifles because they recognize a prisoner or because they don't. They're all waiting for a peace that has yet to come.

Next book: Nujood Ali's I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, from Yemen.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Book 80, Eritrea: "My Fathers' Daughter" by Hannah Pool

Woo woo! I'm at the 80th book! And it's one that you guys helped me choose, too!

Granted, Pool isn't a very literary writer: she's mostly a fashion and lifestyle columnist at the Guardian, Eritrean by birth but adopted by a British academic as an infant. The memoir's about her first visit to her birth family at the age of 29, and it's actually annoying at certain junctures - she gets so damn weepy, she cries all over the place, she spends chapters agonising about the tortured moments before she dares to walk through a door to meet these people who abandoned her (did she even really confront them with this in the end?).

But you know what? She's honest. She's being Bridget Jones-ish because she IS Bridget Jones-ish, and she's painfully aware of the ironies in her reactions, the excruciating dumbness of the fact that she's actually jealous of the half-malnourished Eritrean kids she sees in her home village, just because they grew up in their own families, without the cultural angst of displacement. She leaves in the bits about how she doesn't fit in, how she makes unexpected alliances and experiences unforeseen alienation; how she has diarrhoea and nausea and crying fits all the time, because her normally cast iron stomach can't deal with the emotional shock and the different enzymes in the goat meat.

And it's so damn informative about the cultural quandary of being an orphan (never believe an orphan who says she doesn't long to trace her birth roots, she says), and about Eritrea itself - not just the folksy villages but also the rather beautiful Italianate capital of Asmara, full of the peeling works of Mussolini's architects, full of the returnees whose families fled during the war with Ethiopia, who speak Arabic or German or Amharic or English instead of Tigrinya: the forever displaced people with whom Pool feels most at home.

A quibble, though: given that Pool has made the book's title about both her fathers (look at where the apostrophe lies! Clever, innit? And so English), we've barely any description about her father, David Pool, the great Friend of Eritrea. I'd like to know a little more about this man, to hear his voice, hear how he tried to teach her about her roots (he did, but the teenage Pool would just tell him, "I'm not Eritrean, I'm just black,") and make him more than just a flat character, being benevolent and understanding in the background. Ditto for her white stepmother, brother and sister, who say they want to join her on a visit to the country in the future. (Have they gone yet? Maybe it says in her TEDx talk. Nah, watched it, and the only cool thing it supplies is the photos.)

Good read, anyhow. Nice to reach the 80-mark on a positive note - a tale about an outsider on a journey to discover who she is.

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Representative quote: Every few moments I think how wonderfully different I will feel whenever I see the word Keren in my own passport from now on. I will be able to picture the mountains and the colours, instead of having a black hole where an image should be. I will be able to describe the haze of sunset and the smell of the market. I might even start adopting a wistful tone and a slight air of mystery as I look into the middle distance and say, 'Ah, Keren, it means mountain, you know. Beautiful place, beautiful people.' That'll put an end to those pitying looks I get when I give my usual response of, 'I don't know what it looks like: I left when I was a baby.'

Next book: "The United States of Africa" by Abdourahman A. Waberi, from Djibouti.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Book 79, Ethiopia: "Beneath the Lion's Gaze" by Maaza Mengiste

Of course the great text of Ethiopia is the Kebra Nagast, the Glory of Kings, the 14th century chronicle of royals from Sheba and Solomon down to medieval times (also the main holy book of the Rastafarians). Sadly, the library only stocks the following:

But I'm being unnecessarily melodramatic, because this novel is awesome. No, seriously, it's superbly well written, really capturing the horror of the Ethiopian Revolution in 1974 and the purges of the Derg: exquisite language, vivid dream sequences, and all following a middle-class family, too, so there's that soap-opera quality that makes it actually enjoyable beach reading.

I actually finished it on Tuesday night, but have been busy with the Singapore Writers Festival and teaching, etc (I'm hosting the Moving Words launch on Saturday now! Just got asked), and come to think of it, I'm pretty tired, so I'll just make two main points:

1. Horrible to admit this, but the author's NYU polished English style plus the fact that the characters are urban intellectuals means that the story doesn't feel like typical African fiction at all: you actually forget the characters are black.

This makes the tale more relatable than ever: you feel yourself inside the skins of these jeans-wearing, stethoscope-toting secular professionals, whose political traumas could've happened in Maoist China or Pol Pot's Cambodia or Stalin's USSR or Bush and Obama's Iraq, really. Odd how that happened. No conscious attempts to whitewash them, as far as I know.

2. The author's created the fictional character of dictator General Guddu for the story. Why? It's based on Mengistu Haile Mariam, so why not just give him that name - she admits to stretching the facts in her afterword, and she did a marvellous job narrating from the viewpoint of a doomed Haile Selassie in the Jubilee Palace.

I suspect she made the change 'cos Mengistu's name sounds too much like hers, and she didn't want to have to field unpleasant questions from dumb folks about whether she was a descendant. Cheating? Yeah, but a sane decision.

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Representative quote: How would Emperor Haile Selassie later describe the moon that night? Voluminous, as thick as milk, a thousand melted stars that sliced the sky with razor-sharp edges. Even in the dark, from his window, he could make out the outlines of trees shivering in the breeze. A truck with squealing brakes pulled up and a barking order, followed by the confused mutterings of soldiers, made the emperor move back to his cot. There was nothing here that we would want to see. Lying on the bed, he raked his fingers over the spider-bite scabs that dotted his arms, picked at one, and took comfort in the tiny pinch of a peeling wound. This was evidence, he reminded himself, that he was still alive. They hadn't killed him yet.

Next book: Hannah Pool's My Father's Daughter, from Eritrea.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Singapore Writers Festival Stuff!

Sorry to segue yet again, but it's unlikely that I'll finish Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Tuesday. Plus, there's events to be advertised.

1. I've been published in the wonderful Singaporean literary journal CERIPH, edited by Lee Wei Fen and Amanda Lee.

This is its 4th edition, branded as the white issue, launched last Saturday at the Singapore Writers Festival. I've got a poem to open each of the five themed sub-chapbooks in the journal (they like to monkey a lot with design): a poem on ivory, a poem on wheat, a poem on amber shift, a poem on cosmic latte, a poem on sleet.

Copies are $20 from BooksActually and the Select Books store at the Festival Pavilion, over at the SMU Green. You should totally pick one up.

2. I'm also being published in the mono-titular anthology Coast, edited by Lee Wei Fen and Daren Shiau.

Mono-titular means that every single story and poem in the book has the title "Coast". Contributors include every significant Singapore writer from Edwin Thumboo to Alfian Sa'at to Pooja Nansi to Theophilus Kwek. (My contribution is fiction, for once!!!)

Don't know how much it costs yet, but it'll be launched at the following free Singapore Writers Festival event:

date : 26 October 2011, Wednesday (Deepavali)
time : 2 pm ~ 3 pm
venue : Singapore Management University (Festival Pavilion, Campus Green)

Be there or be square.

3. I'm also hosting an event at SWF: the screening and discussion of the short film Civic Life: Tiong Bahru. I'll be interviewing co-director Joe Lawlor, bookstore owner Kenny Leck and someone else.

Tiong Bahru Trailer from Desperate Optimists on Vimeo.

The timing of the event is:

date : 30 October 2011, Sunday
time : 2 pm ~ 3 pm
venue : National Museum Gallery Theatre

Right now, the free advance tickets have been snapped up, but further tickets will be available at 1pm on the day itself from the Museum Box Office. More info here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Book 78, Somalia: "Maps" by Nuruddin Farah

Good lord. Finally finished this book. And I’m sad to say that after all that trouble it took to get a hold of a copy, Maps has turned out to be one of those terribly acclaimed works of literature that I don’t like very much.

Even though it’s not obviously long like A House For Mr Biswas and Pynter Bender, it drags. The narrative’s more theme-based than plot-based: we spiral around moments and symbols in the orphan Askar's life: blood, lots of it; eventually maps as well; impenetrable dreams; women's bodies; amputations, etc.

And it's true what they say about Somalis being unstereotypical of the African continent, because Farah is ruthlessly intellectual: Askar's a prodigy to begin with, and then he's matched up with Mogadishu elites like his Uncle Hilaal and his Aunt Salaado who debate the historicity of ethnicity and civilisation and barbarianism until after a while you don't care how beautiful the prose is, you just wanna finish and go home to sleep.

Yeah, I'm tired. How'd you guess?

I suppose there's plenty worth learning in here: how Farah dares to jump around from first person to second person to third person in his narrative; how a story centred on a young man can actually end up being centred more on his nursemaid Misra, the utterly oppressed Ethiopian servant who gave him her everything and is still sacrificed to the mobs in the aftermath of the war; how one can be unapologetically brainy, invoking Freud and Plath and Kierkegaard even in the midst of inter-clan murder happening in the third world villages right next door.

But mostly, I'm amazed that the public laps this stuff up. How do they put up with it? Gawd.

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Representative quote: I hid my inner torment behind the silence I stood in - my hands behind my back, my body upright, my mind alert, my thoughts stirring within me echoes of conversations I had with Misra years agto, with Cusmaan who was my tutor some nine or so years ago, with Salaado - and with myself. Somehow, I felt I had to betray one of them. I had to betray either Misra, who had been like a mother to me, or my mother country. However, part of me was worried - worried that a curse would be placed on my head by either. And I couldn't help remembering dreams in which I saw an old man with a girl's face and features, or another in which the dreamer, a young man who imagined he had envied a woman's menstruation, menstruated.

Next book: Maaza Mengiste's Beneath the Lion's Gaze, from Ethiopia.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Fiction Based on Asian Folklore

Guess what? National Library managed to track down their apparently "lost" copy of "Maps", so I'm reading it quite happily now. Not your typical African novel at all.

In the meantime, I'll advertise my own project:

Dear Writers,

We love Asian folklore. We grew up listening to Chinese legends, Arab fairy tales, Malay ghost stories and Indian sacred epics, and their fabulous images have continued to inhabit our imaginations ever since.

But as adults, we’re sometimes bugged by the moralistic, simplistic way these fables are told. We’re aching to hear these tropes subverted, perverted or simply adapted to reflect our times.

So, we’ve decided to reinvent our heritage. We’re putting together ‘Eastern Heathens’: an anthology of short stories based on folklore from our continent. We're looking for intelligent, imaginative myths, retold for adult connoisseurs.

We’d like you to base your story on a pre-existing Asian folktale. To help you out, we’ve included a list of our favourite traditional stories and sagas at (Do feel free to interpret a story that’s from a culture other than your ‘own’.)

Our deadline is 31 January 2012. Entries should be in prose; poetry will not be accepted. Please include your name and your contact information in your submission. Also include the title of the original folktale that’s inspired your story, as well as a brief summary of that folktale for our reference.

Please e-mail for enquiries and submissions.

Yours sincerely,

Amanda Lee and Ng Yi-Sheng

P.S. Both of us editors are based in Singapore, but we welcome international submissions.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

WTH happened to the Woodlands Library copy of "Maps"?

So I reserved a copy of Nuruddin Farah's Maps last Monday or Tuesday. Usually these reservations get processed in three days' time.

Now, not only is my reservation still "pending", but the borrowable copy of Maps no longer even appears in the online catalogue. It's bizarre - if the copy was lost, usually they'd say it was lost.

So do I read the 259-page autographed reference section copy, shelved in the closed stacks? Or do I just read something else by this Somalian author? Am kind of holding on to the idea of reading this, since it's considered one of 100 Best African Books of the 20th Century.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book 77, Kenya: "Devil on the Cross" by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Finally finished this book! Hard for me to figure out why it took so long; once I started it properly it really pulled me in.

Basically, it's excellent: the International Herald Tribune quote on the cover don't lie: way better than Ngũgĩ's English language novel The River Between (which was used as a rather stiff educational text here in Singapore), or indeed his somewhat didactic play The Black Hermit.

One big difference is that the story was written in Gikuyu - in fact, this is the first modern novel written in that language; the legendary piece he composed on prison toilet paper while serving out his jail sentence. This means we're importing quite a quite different set of vocabulary and proverbs - "Only a fool sucks at his dead mother's tit - plus the bits which originally appeared in English and Swahili and Latin are italicised, which provides a completely new take on the lexicon.

Ah, but what seduces me is the whole magical realist style (terrible how this has become a throwaway term, when what's possible under this classifier is so divergent). Our beleaguered heroine Wariinga has dreams and hallucinations along with her misfortunes; she has a dialogue with the devil, even. But what's happening in the non-supernatural world is just as strange, as a huge Feast of International Thieves and Robbers is taking place in a cave in Ilmorog, presided over by the greatest exploitative capitalists from the USA, Europe and Japan, while Kenyan millionaires compete for the title of the greatest thief in the nation - proposing nightmarish schemes of how they can exploit the workers of post-independence Africa even further, binding them closer than ever to their former colonial masters...

Yes, it's didactic again: Ngũgĩ sure doesn't like capitalism, and indeed the business shenanigans of many of his neo-colonial bosses are completely legal, completely justifiable in our Friedmanated world; he's mad at the way folks bought up the newly free land and sold it at a profit to the poor, even. It's sobering to realise how far we fall from the Marxian ideal that our forefathers fought for when they cried uhuru and merdeka back in the 1960s. Maybe that's why we don't study this in school - the way things have turned out with globalised capitalism hits too close to home.

(He sure hates religion, too. See how the title turns Christianity on its head? Churches and mosques and parables of investing talents just perpetuate the problem of exploitation, he says, preventing the workers from rising up against those who would control their minds as well as bodies.)

Oh but back to the language; the sheer poetry (yes, he mixes poetry and song and monologue into the fiction). This is what makes the book so good; what makes it completely believable when the author boasts that oral storytellers began memorising the tale and extemporising on it for non-literate audiences: a modern-day Homer or Valmiki or Narada, making the literary arts folk art rather than vice versa.

Thoroughly recommended - and there's a hell of an ending, too. Should go read his most recent Gikuyu novel, the monumental 700-ish page Wizard of the Crow, as well. Or maybe I'll save that for my bucket list.

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Representative quote: After three days, there came other dressed in suits and ties, who, keeping clsoe to the wall of darkness, lifted the Devil down from the Cross. And they knelt before him, and they prayed to him in loud voices, beseeching him to give them a portion of his robes of cunning. And their bellies began to swell, and they stood up, and they walked towards Wariinga, laughing at her, stroking their large bellies, which had now inherited all the evils of the world..."

Next book: Nuruddin Farah's "Maps", from Somalia.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A dialogue

(My boyfriend is pretty well read.)

YS: What books would you recommend by Ngugi wa'Thiongo?

Mohan: Huh? What Ah Tiong?

(Turns out he's read Chinua Achebe, but not Ngugi. My mistake.)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Help me choose my Eritrea book!

At first I was 100% sure of the book I'd read for Eritrea: Senait Mehari's Heart of Fire: from Child Soldier to Soul Singer.

I mean, just look at the subtitle! Just look at it! Who wouldn't want to read a book like that? Then I decided to check out if this sensational story might be a hoax, and well...

According to this link (and the threads of many furious Eritreans),

1) Senait has publicly admitted to never having fought on the front or fired a gun, as she claimed in her book,

2) A woman named Almaz Yohannes, whom Senait claimed was the brutal military commander of a training centre and ordered children to be killed, was in reality just a 12 year-old student at the time.

So should I read it? Goodreads claims it's stylistically repetitive, too.

My only alternative at present seems to be Hannah Pool's My Father's Daughter, an account of a British adoptee returning to discover her Eritrean biological family.

It sounds like this is a pretty good book, but it's fundamentally from an outsider's point of view. Pool didn't live in Eritrea for a good portion of her life; Senait might be a lying sack of shit, but she's a hell of a lot more Eritrean.

So who do I read? I've set up a poll on the right.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Book 76, Uganda: “Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol” by Okot p’Bitek

I’ve actually read a bit of Song of Lawino before, in my sister’s old secondary school English textbook, if you can believe it. It was an extract from Chapter 5: “The Graceful Giraffe Cannot Become a Monkey”, in which Lawino sings of how her natural springy Afro do is different but equal to the silky straight locks of a white woman. The textbook illustrator had a fine time drawing the safari animals of her proverbs, drawing the scene where Lawino’s rival has her wig torn from her head by the spirit of a dead white woman.

Commonwealth literature, baby! It’s what us Singaporean poets were raised on.

Turns out, though, that the extract were expurgated – there’s loads of verses and lines in the original that were excised for the sake of children’s tender minds. The poem’s full of stuff that’d shock an innocent schoolkid: excremental imagery of shit and piss and vomit, tribal values that are utterly other: acceptance of polygamy, scorn of Christianity and book-reading and Westernised medicine, even some positive fetishisation of shit and piss and vomit. Who but a witch would love a homestead where the compound is not strewn with the excreta of children, she cries. Oo-er.

Oh, and the whole poem’s about anger – Lawino’s the scorned wife, calling out her Westernised intellectual husband, Ocol, who verbally abuses her for her love of tradition, for her lack of education, for her ignorance. At first the poem’s attacking Clementine aka Tina, Ocol’s Westernised lover, she of the white woman’s wig. But soon she goes on to cover every dimension of the colonized mind: her husband’s political career, his love of ballroom dance, his Christian name (Melchizedek Gregory, no wonder, she’d rather stick with Ocol). Sure, she stops herself now and then to say folks can do what folks choose to, just don’t make her change, but really, it’s invective – there’s a bit where she conjectures that Tina’s aborted her twins into the latrine, where she enumerates all the varieties of human dung to be found at the dance hall (gawd, so excremental).

Basically, it’s a rather thrilling read. Not as brief as you’d expect a book of poetry to be. The introduction makes a good case for the level of ressentiment: after so many European writings had denigrated African tradition, most African writers went on the defensive, saying, “We’re not that bad! If you forget the infibulation-y stuff,” whereas Song of Lawino is on the offensive, written from the viewpoint of an uneducated woman who nonetheless sure as hell knows what she likes and what she doesn’t. Same reason it became an international success, even on the African continent – village folks recognised what she was saying as common talk; the only shock was seeing it in print.

The last bit of Lawino is especially good: she entreats the husband to return to his culture, giving a step-by-step account of the rituals of vomiting and rattle-shaking he should conduct to exorcise the white spirits. After all that, Song of Ocol is actually a disappointment: our poet Okot p’Bitek isn’t interested in giving us a balanced viewpoint, but is making Ocol out to be a supervillain, throwing Lawino out of the house, blustering to the constituents who elected him into office, vowing to blow up Kilimanjaro and fill in the Rift Valleys and execute the shamans, longing to be white. Not a coherent piece; Ocol’s too psycho, shuttling from his nightmares to his proclamations, not even consistent in his villainy when he points out how downtrodden “proud Africans” are.

But there’s an odd logic to the chaos, y’know: three years after this piece was published, the Scots-loving colonial gentleman-dictator Idi Amin came into power; Ocol personified. Song of Ocol is thus a prophecy of the madness that would follow.

Interestingly enough, Lawino was written first in Acoli and Ocol in English. Wondering if I should zap some of the former to show my writing students the effective incorporation of foreign language idioms into English language poetry.

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Representative quote:

My husband’s house
Is a mighty forest of books,
Dark it is and very damp,
The steam rising from the ground
Hot thick and poisonous
Mingles with the corrsive dew
And the rain drops
That have collected in the leaves.

They choke you
If you stay there long,
They ruin your nose and tongue
So that you no longer
Enjoy the fresh smell of of simsim oil
Or the taste of malakwang;

And the boiling darkness
Bursts your eye balls
And the sticky juices
That drop form the gum trees
Block the holes of your ears,
And when ten girls
Standing on the hillock
In the moonlight
Sing oyele songs,
Throwing stones of abuse
At the rough-skinned ugly old men
Chosen for them as husbands
By their money-loving fathers,

Or when your daughter
Sings a lovely lullaby
To her baby brother
Strapped on her back,
And she sways forwards and backwards
As she sings

O baby
Why do you cry?
Are you ill?
O baby stop crying
Your mother has fried the
aluru birds
In ghee!

When the girls sing cycle songs
And the nurse sings her lullaby
You hear only noises,
Noises that disturb you
Like a brick
Thrown on top of the iron roof.

Next book: Ngugi wa’Thiongo’s Devil on the Cross, from Kenya.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book 75, Rwanda: "An Ordinary Man" by Paul Rusesabagina and Tom Zoellner

This is a good book. Seriously, I’d been prepared for it to be a mound of Heal-the-World blather: it’s by a hotel manager/genocide survivor made famous by a Hollywood adaptation of history, co-writing (or ghostwritten?) by a freelance journalist and writer, who has worked as a reported for the San Francisco Chronicle. Have you read movie spin-off novels? They’re consistently bleah, and that’s when they’re written by writer-writers, too.

But this book… remember how I said I was exhausted from reading too many books about genocide? This book somehow woke me up.

Rusesabagina gives you an inside perspective of the genocide with a difference: a personal view of the village and urban culture it grew out of, the sheer fascination with the hateful radio stations which broadcast street gossip like, vernacular as no-one had ever been before on the airwaves. The intimacy and cleverness required to be an adult navigating one’s way through the hierarchies of the Rwandan hospitality industry: black/white, Hutu/Tutsi, Northern Hutu/Southern Hutu; the culture of the Rwandan no, hemming and hawing and making excuses instead of flat-out refusing to do what is asked.

Above all, his belief in humanity:his conviction that his success in saving 1,268 lives in the Hôtel des Mille Collines was nothing more than the work of an ordinary man, one who was able to negotiate with the generals poised to murder him by looking them in the eye and negotiating, not as victim versus monster but as human versus human. There is no good and evil in such cases, he says, only hard and soft. And if only you can find the soft part of a man, then you can appeal to his humanity.

(Furthermore, the fundamental human condition is peace, not savagery, he insists in his closing chapter. When chaos reins, we say the veneer of civilization is lifted off: why do we insist on seeing our day-to-day courtesies as the aberration, and not the norm?)

If you haven’t realised it by now, our hotel manager is either far more intelligent and philosophically gifted than most hotel managers, or else Zoellner is a ghostwriter with great gifts of sleight-of-hand. Bravo.

Also provocative to me personally is Rusesabagina’s feud with Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s former Tutsi rebel chief and now its autocratic, technocratic President, who has been responsible for the harmony, stability and growing prosperity of the nation over the last 15 years. We Singaporeans love Kagame because he apes the economy-driven strongmen of Asia: Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Mohammed, Deng Xiaopeng. Sure, he gets unlikely results in elections (95%???) and hushes up the papers a bit, and he’s got this consistently top-down mindset that allows for no disagreement whatsoever, but the continent of Africa needs a success story, especially one like Rwanda’s, in which a downtrodden gutted nation rises from its own carnage to become first world, dammit.

(More about Kagame can be gleaned from his biography, A Thousand Hills, which I peeked at in the library, and about Rwanda’s digital aspirations here.)

But our dear hotel manager will have none of this. He says that power and benefits are being channeled only to a small coterie of Tutsi elites: the same conditions that gave rise to Hutu resentment in the first place. He has great scorn for the current system of justice on the grass – gacaca, they call it – where village councils decide the punishments for the genocidaires. Ridiculous: “like taking a rapist to a traffic magistrate”. Too open to abuse. Oddly enough, he’s fine with Kagame’s ban on classifications of people as either Hutu or Tutsi. I’m not so sure. Burundi tried this before, according to Strength in What Remains, and a fat lot of good this did them.

So yeah, thanks to the two guys who voted me to read this over Immaculée Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell and Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist (gah, I wanna read that last one! I have a thing for primatology, doncha know?). This is one of the really good ones.

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Representative quote: I remember reading this in the Bible when I was a young man: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Our time here on the earth is short, and our chance to make a difference is tiny. For me the grinding blocks of history came together in such a way that I was able to take what fragile defense I had and hold it in place for seventy-six days. If I was able to give much it was only because I had some useful things in my life to give. I am a hotel manager, trained to negotiate contracts and provide shelter for those who need it. My job never changed, even in a sea of fire.

Next book: Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol, from Uganda.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book 74, Burundi: "Strength in What Remains" by Tracy Kidder

I've been trying to avoid books like this: non-fiction works by outsiders, i.e. histories, anthropologies, non-autobiography biographies. But there's no real danger of critical objectivity here: the Pullitzer Prizewinning Kidder intrudes upon the narrative constantly, registering his shock, acknowledging that he could not have survived the genocide in Burundi as his biographical subject has.

Also consider that Deogratias Niyizonkiza is a personal friend of Kidder's; that Kidder accompanies him on a trip back to the site of his refugee flight in Burundi and Rwanda (yes, this guy escaped the pogroms in his home country only to seek safety in Rwanda, just in time to watch the massacres breaking out all over again). Watches Deo wrestle with his demons, visiting the memorial sites of mass murder obsessively on a quest for catharsis which his own culture forbids - there's a saying in Kirindi that it's better to forget, that it's taboo to speak of the dead and things in the past, which means that healing is next to impossible.

Kidder really has a knack of getting under his subject's skin: having worked on biography I know how difficult it is to milk subjects for details about their lives, but he's mapped Deo's journey quite extensively, from his impoverished childhood in Butanza to his medical school years in Bujumbura to his survival of the genocide, his flight to Rwanda, his return to Bujumbura, his escape under false pretences to New York, where he somehow drew on the kindness of strangers to go from being a Gristedes delivery boy to a Dartmouth medical student, all the while haunted by horrible dreams which he could never tell himself weren't real, because that darkness and that blood, that baby he'd left starving as he crawled across the killing fields, well, they'd happened.

(The New York tale is particularly striking, and not just because I recognise the geography: the sheer effort of a few do-gooders to help him, versus his cultural pride and shame at having to accept charity, to the extent that he'd routinely sabotage their good works - god, how does good even make it in this world when there's so much room for misunderstanding?)

I'm tired and I'm not feeling particularly up for literary dissection, but yeah, this is a good book, just a little exhausting in its dedication to documenting the actual causes for the genocide (the fact that I'm reading Shamini Flint's Inspector Singh Investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree, set at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal, really doesn't help my mood. Genocide everywhere.)

But a final point: why the hell doesn't Kidder mention Deo's surname? I mean, he's promoting his Village Health Works clinic out the wazoo, and a little googling makes it clear that this guy exists rather than being a fictional construct. So why keep this detail cloaked? Does it help to fictionalise this man? Does it render him more sensational, more literary?

Wanna sleep.

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Representative quote:

Deo remembered, from a previous trip, taking a walk here in Bujumbura with his beloved older brother, Antoine, and coming upon a corpse. This was back during the war. The body was laid out on top of a heap of garbage. Deo had yelled at the sight, frightened and appalled. His brother had looked at the corpse and said, "What's strange here?" Then he'd looked at Deo and said, "You've been away too long."

Next book: Paul Rusesabagina's An Ordinary Man, from Rwanda. Yeah, I'm keeping up with the genocide theme, curse your eyes.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Singapore Poetry Today

I've been terribly distracted by deadlines, so I've only made a teensy bit of progress with The Strength of What Remains. In the interim, enjoy my summary of the state of Singapore poetry today, published on the British Council's Writing the City blog.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

CONTRADICTION 7, Sat 13 Aug, 7:30pm!

Though it's unrelated, I'm gonna plug this...

Some of you might know about IndigNation, Singapore's annual queer pride festival. It's on now, and the calendar's up here:

I'd just like to advertise my own little event, which is part of the festival: CONTRADICTION 7!!!

Our annual queer literary reading is back! Prepare for a sumptuous salon with Singapore’s most talented new GLBT writers, curated by Ng Yi-Sheng, Jasmine Seah and Amanda Lee.

Featured artists include singer/songwriters Iris Judotter and Roy Lim, poets Teng Qian Xi and Mika Yamaji, playwrights Joel Tan and Drayton Hiers, author/artist Tania de Rozario, slammers Stephanie Chan, Atiqah Lukman and Deborah Emmanuel, Golden Point Award winner Jeremy Tiang, and heterosexual guest star, accordionist Faizal Bochtiar. Hosted by drag queen Becca D'Bus.

Date: Sat 13 August (this weekend!)
Time: 7:30 onwards
Venue: 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road (TheatreWorks office)

Free entry! Refreshments provided!

Rated R-18 by MDA - we just got the licence. :D

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book 73, Tanzania: “Paradise” by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Y’know, I know this is a Booker Prize shortlistee and all, and Gurnah’s imagination and prose skills are pretty powerful. But I’m not really into this book – it’s all setting, all premise, all exposition, with barely any agency on the part of our handsome young hero Yusuf.

The back cover says it’s set in East Africa at the time of colonization – folks refer to Zanzibar and Kawa and Mombasa, but it’s not clear to my unschooled brain if the site of the main action’s in Tanzania or Kenya, or if the main characters are black or Arab (it’s mentioned that Yusuf is Mswahili, while the others speak Arabic – does that help?).

Historical markers oughta narrow it down: the Arabs are still trading amongst the local Sultans of the interior and taking on the kids of their indebted as rehanis; the Germans and English are invading with their askari armies and have ended the slave trade and are forcing the Sultans to cut back on their tribute; somehow there’s a train and an Indian mechanic who knows how to fix cars. Early 20th, very late 19th centuries? Beats me.

There’s also a plot at the end that makes it clear that the whole is an analogy for the tale of Joseph in Genesis, he of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame. Yusuf=Joseph (he doesn’t have a coat but he does have a whole lot of disturbing dreams and is very handsome), Uncle Aziz=Potiphar, Zuleikha=well, Zuleika, the Islamic name for Potiphar’s wife who falls for Joseph and tears his shirt as he flees. A lot of Islamic imagery throughout, in fact – blazing gates and hells and gardens: paradise itself.

But really, even though Yusuf’s a gorgeous innocent teenager who’s been torn from his family as a child, how can we have sympathy for him when he has no bloody volition? It’s like trying to get emotionally attached to a pet stone. (Possible, but still a stretch.)

Ahhh, maybe I’ve learned something about lush, descriptive, dreamlike writing. Maybe I’ve learned that you can get away without having a real ending, or much of a plot, and still get wild praise from the criterati.

But y’know, I could’ve read Shaaban Robert, father of Swahili poetry instead. I could’ve CS Forester’s The African Queen, y’know? Grump grump grump.

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Representative quote:
The air was sharp under the mountain, and the light has a purple tint which Yusuf had never seen before. In the early morning the top of the mountain was hidden by clouds, but as the sun strengthened the clouds disappeared and the peak congealed into ice. On one side, the level plain stretched away. Behind the mountain, he was told by the others who had been here before, lived the dusty warrior people who herded cattle and drank the blood of their animals. They thought war was honourable and were proud of their history of violence. The greatness of their leaders was measured by the animals they had acquired from raiding their neighbours, and by the number of women they had abducted from their homes. When they were not fighting, they adorned their bodies and hair with the dedication of brothel queens.

Next book: Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, from Burundi.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book 72, Seychelles: "Seychelles Global Citizen" by James R. Mancham

Just back from a three-day holiday with my boyfriend in Kuching, Sarawak! Picked up four collections of folktales, drawn from the Bidayuh, Melanau, Orang Ulu and Iban peoples – all for the price of RM 35 = S$14.24. Once again, SCORE.

In the meantime, I finished the autobiography of Seychelles’s first chief minister and president, which I purchased for US$12.69 = S$15.33, used, on a last-minute impulse via Amazon and had delivered via my little brother Yixian:

And honestly? It’s not that good a buy. Though Mancham isn’t a bad writer, per se, he’s in dire need of an editor. There’s the makings of a great story in his life, but his insistence on including every last detail of his experiences and impressions, causing anecdotes to be occasionally grouped by theme rather than sequence, his refusal to hold back on his condemnation of his usurper France-Albert René until the coup’s actually happened, and the way he falls back on his favourite damn quotations and clichés – winds of change, après moi le deluge, there is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed – ah, all this could have been solved with the use of a few hours and a stout red pen, but none of that happened here, nosiree.

Still, the book’s terribly good as a reference text (especially considering the dearth of info on this guy’s life on Wikipedia). Mancham starts with his Chinese-French background and his father’s enterprising history and his Oxford education; then the world of statecraft: how he developed the Seychelles as a tourist destination by bringing in an international airport and numberless celebrities (Princess Margaret, Peter Sellers, Yul Brynner, the Shah of Iran), ensuring all the while that the image of the islands as an untouched paradise would not be spoiled, that the locals would not resent the outsiders since they, too, were allowed to enter the hotels and dance in the ballrooms.

And perhaps most interestingly, how impossible it was for the nation to point out that its citizens did not want independence: the majority voted for a closer relationship, even union with the UK every time (a situation like Réunion’s with France was what they had in mind), and yet the African lobby in the UN and the UK’s sheer exhaustion with keeping up an empire meant that the Crown was simply not prepared to maintain its colony. So, to Mancham’s chagrin, the nation was free.

Which would all have been very well except that he was pressured into forming a coalition government with René, who’d already been placed under suspicion since his Tanzanian-backed followers had been detonating bombs across the country. René of course repaid his kindness by overthrowing him in a bloody coup a few years later and exiling him and his family from the nation for 15 years. Under René, the nation pursued socialism, suppressed freedom of speech, operated as a one-party state, imprisoned dissenters (there had not been a single political prisoner before this period, not one) and imposed a brainwashing national service for both young men and women. (Wikipedia notes that infant mortality also went down during this administration, and attained several #1s for development in Africa, which might not actually be that hard to accomplish.)

Ugh. Pretty obvious who the good guy and bad guy is in this story, no matter how boring the good guy is at times. Mancham also mentions how big an admirer he is of Lee Kuan Yew, and how he was accosted in Takashimaya Shopping Centre recently by “three Chinese gentlemen” who wished him to play Santa Claus at an upcoming children’s party. (Mancham says he would’ve said yes, only he was flying out. A real bon-vivant sort of guy, the kind who understands what tourists value.)

I’m thinking of donating this book to the National Library – no use for me to keep it, since no-one else’ll read it, and currently the only book they’ve got on Seychelles is Christopher Lee's Seychelles: Political Castaways, dated 1976, just before the coup in 1977. Already tried to get them to stock it for me, but they claimed it was out of stock (evidently, buying from a second-hand dealer is beneath them.)

So how do I convince them to take it off my hands? Honestly, it belongs in the reference section, not the Book Crossings bin.

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Representative quote:
Far too often in life those close to me have accused me of being an unshakeable optimist. In the present doom and gloom, while anxiety makes common mortals sweat profusely, those still wearing a smile may be taken for cranks or provocateurs, yet as the poet pointed out, night is always followed by day and storms often herald rainbows.

Next book: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah, from Tanzania.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book 71, Mauritius: "The Prospector" by JMG Le Clézio

Yep, yet another Nobel Laureate! Mind you, Le Clézio was born and bred in France, but his dad's from Mauritius and he holds dual French-Mauritian citizenship and he occasionally lives on the island too. So, yeah, he counts. (Still feel guilty I'm not doing Joseph Tsang Mang Kin's The Hakka Epic, though.

As for the book, which is Le Clézio's "crowning achievement" - well, I honestly spent most of it being puzzled over why he won that Nobel. Not because it's badly written - far from it! - but the fact is that the content is far from revolutionary. It's basically a historical novel, telling the story of a poor white colonial kid named Alexis L'Étang living from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. All the necessary exotica's thrown in there: shipwrecks, jungles, plantation life, hurricanes, a sexy and mysteriously wise island girl, worker revolts and a stint in the trenches of World War One.

True, it's written quite beautifully: lush but distanced descriptions of nature and remembered folklore. But the modernist project here is quite subtle: no breaking the form as Orhan Pamuk or Luis Rafael Sánchez do. And remember, the Nobel Committee usually selects someone who's either a political or a poetic revolutionary. Where's the beef?

I only started to get a sense of transcendence when Alexis returns from the war and returns to his obsessive project of attempting to excavate the treasure of the Unknown Corsair, so he can buy back the land his uncle stole from his father: the unforgotten Eden in Boucan Valley, where the tree of knowledge was planted, where he swam with his black companion Denis in the sea. The grand, relentless, desperate search for gold, guided by ancient maps and symbols, seemed to be an allegory for the the writer's craft in uncovering literature from his soul.

And yet the story ends with Alexis accepting the futility of it all. So either Le Clézio's an extreme pessimist or my exegesis fails.

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Representative quote:
In the evenings, while the twilight deepens, I sit in the sand on the dunes and dream of Ouma and her metal-coloured body. I make a drawing of her with a sharp piece of flint on a basalt block near where the reeds start. But when I want to write the date I realize that I don't know what day or month it is. For a moment I think of running to the telegraph office as I did before, to ask: What day is it? But then I realize that it wouldn't mean anything to me, that the date is of no importance.

Next book: James Mancham's Seychelles Global Citizen, from the Seychelles (duh).

Monday, July 25, 2011

Library Book Sale!!

I'm only two-thirds through The Prospector - not because it's long or dull, but because I've been busy rehearsing for and performing in our theatre-live poetry-dance-multimedia production, The City Limits.

So, to keep you amused, I'll show off my stash from this weekend's National Library Book Sale:

Ain't they purty? And all of them cost $2 each, beat that.

Top row: Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, Victor Pelevin's Omon Ra, Paul Jordan's The Atlantis Syndrome.
Middle row: Ben Tal-Shahar's Happier, Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude (English edition!!!), J Minter's Take It Off.
Bottom row: Jim Crace's Being Dead, A Samad Said's Ballad of the Lost Map, DGE Hall's A History of Southeast Asia.

No way I'll finish them anytime soon; some of them never (the History of Southeast Asia was published in 1981, and it seems useful only as an occasional reference tome; worth the small change.)

But honestly, the sale is a great source of texts - it's where I got my Zimbabwe book from, fr'instance.

In other news, I'm concurrently reading Stephen King's On Writing:

And Catherine Lim's Miss Seetoh in the World.

Bibliopalooza! Will update again shortly.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lord have mercy.

A couple of days ago, Frank Chipasula e-mailed me about my Malawian poetry post.

Tonight, I discovered Nestor Amarilla is following me on Twitter.

The world's getting too small...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book 70, Réunion: "The Last Colony" by Michael Steane

Don't buy this book. Seriously. It cost me US$0.99 via Amazon Kindle and I still feel like it wasn't worth the money. As Dorothy Parker said, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

But of course The Last Colony: An Experience of Reunion Island isn't a novel; it's a memoir, written by a British electric technician who spent three years there as an English teacher en route to migrating to Australia. A bit like With Sword and Chain in Lusaka, only in this case the author's an utter nobody, who can't even write that well - he even admits as much in his intro, when he apologises for how disjointed the book is, utterly contrary to the advice he used to give his students.

Truth is, I can deal with the disjointedness. It's actually pretty interesting to read the details Steane gives about culture on the island: the drunkenness, the high prices, the overlapping of Islam, Catholicism and Hinduism, the mendacious marabout shamans from mainland Africa, the violent crime, the beauty of the Creole girls, the skills of the pickup artists and the scandals and corruption of the politicians.

What I can't deal with is:

1) The fact that most of the book is about his struggle with French bureaucracy, and how contrary to the principles of the newly inaugurated European Union all this is (he migrated in '91 and couldn't find a job because he was British and jobs were reserved for Frenchies). Truly, he's got nothing good to say about the French - he claims their greatest contribution to civilisation was giving Henry VIII syphilis thus leading to the English Reformation. Reading an anger-filled screed against foreign civil servants is not much fun.

2) Really odd grammar. He's made the conscious decision to narrate most of the book in present tense, despite the fact that most of the events are long behind him, thus necessitating frequent shuttlings between present and past tense. Combined with the jumbled sequence of events - well, really, there's no story in the end. No recurring characters, barely any dialogue - it doesn't have to be genuine: A Trip to the Beach made up half its sequence and it still leaves you with a sense of joy in life.

Gah, the guy just can't write well or just isn't trying. Couldn't even tell "principle" apart from "principal". Don't think that was a typo.

What's really weird is the fact that he confesses to having really loved certain aspects of the island: the gorgeous nature, the volcanoes, the children, the ladies (not one of whom has her character elaborated upon - did they just not stick around long enough to find out?). He even closes the book with a bunch of tips on tourist attractions. But after having read such an irritable travelogue, who would want to visit?

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(I'd want to, actually. The Indian Ocean Regional Poetry Slam is held there, and Singapore's sending a representative there following our own slam finals on 21 July. Benjamin Chow deserves to go as our best champion, but it'd be so freaking cool to attend!)

If you're looking for alternatives to this book, there's a whole tradition of littérature réunionnaise you can look up yourself, but none of it seems to have been translated into English.

Representative quote: Farewell Reunion. Forgive me for my anger. Forgive me for the book I am going to write.

Next book: J.M. Clézio's The Prospector, from Mauritius.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Welcome to the world, South Sudan!

Goody! Another nation to read in this project! Now internationally recognised and all!

Unfortunately, I'm also reading about the history of Sudan in Richard Dowden's Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, and after hearing what SPLA has done to its own people in the past, I can't be too optimistic about the nation's immediate future.

Still, the prior situation of South Sudan was quite untenable. Maybe there's a path towards long-term development now. Boo yeah!

Now, when is Google Maps gonna update itself?

Tsk tsk.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Book 69, Madagascar: “24 Poems” by Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

Unfortunately I can’t get my paws on the recent English translation of this guy’s poems, Translated from the Night. This bunch forms just a thin volume – more of an illustrated pamphlet, really – and was published by les Amis de Rabearivelo in Ibadan, 1962. (It’s only in the National Library’s reference section because of good ol’ Edwin Thumboo’s donation. That’s a good laureate!)

Rabearivelo’s historically important because he’s widely viewed as Africa’s first modern poet. This is why folks doing a reading project like this should pick his work instead of trashy, viciously reviewed novels like The Sapphire Sea.

But he’s also aesthetically important because he’s really a rather good poet. True, I’m reading the stuff in English rather than in French/Malagasy, but there’s a dreamlike grace and vibrancy to his images that you don’t see everywhere – complete beauty and ambivalence of feeling, yet clear strength.

Oh, and he’s clearly a nature poet. Barely a breath of the city in these pieces: some Christian/Muslim village life, a black glassmaker, an artist who plucks bamboo to shape it into zithers in town.

This is nature in a very European sense, though: not jungle but a sedate, stellar, almost astronomical view of lianas and birds and pomegranate bushes, kissed with passionate dispassion by the sun. (Astronomical is quite right; there’s a lot of talk of stars and moonbeams and the movement of the Earth: he calls the Southern Star the white bull, as the Arabs do.)

Some cool modernist paintings in this edition too, by M.E. Betts: they look like what Picasso might make with Chinese ink, only they’re black and white and from Africa, so maybe they’re something quite other.

Sorry, not much else to say. Teeny-tiny book!

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Representative quote:


There you stand
erect and naked
you are a lime tree and remember;
but truly you are the child of this fertile shadow
that feeds on lunar milk;
slowly you take the shape of a pillar
on this low wall over which dreams of flowers drift
and the perfume of a relaxed summer.

To feel to believe that roots sprout at your feet
and move and twist themselves like thirsty snakes
towards some underground source
or that clench the sand
and make you part of it, you, living one,
unknown tree, unnamed tree
that develops fruit
which you must pluck yourself.

Your crown,
in your hair dishevelled by the wind,
conceals a nest of transcendant birds,
and when you will come to sleep in my bed,
and I will recognise you, my errant brother,
your touch, your breath, and the odour of your skin
will provoke the rustling of mysterious winds
even to the frontiers of sleep.

Next book: Michael Steane’s The Last Colony: An Experience of Reunion Island from Réunion.