Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book 64, Zimbabwe: "Zenzele" by Nozipo Maraire

Ah, I was feeling regretful that I wasn't reading Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions this month, given that it's supposedly one of Africa's 12 best novels of the 20th century.

But Zenzele: A Letter to My Daughter's been sitting on my shelf for maybe two years, ever since I picked it up for next to nothing at a library book sale. And one of my priorities for this reading journey is simply to clear out my own house.

Luckily, Zenzele turns out to be very good. It's a little didactic at first, as the mother Shiri earnestly impresses her advice on her daughter leaving to study in Boston: one must not neglect the ancestral village of Chakowa; one must not be too dismissive of one's traditions, even the apparently chauvinistic custom of lobola, the bride-price; one must be proud of one's identity even in the heathen den that is America. Still readable, of course, and very reminiscent of any Southeast Asian mother's instructions to honour the kampung/guxiang/barangay.

But Shiri's also talking about generations - how this generation takes everything for granted, having been spoiled by their revolutionary parents who wanted so badly for them to have everything that was denied to blacks in the colonial days of Rhodesia. And then she begins relating thrilling, intimate stories of these revolutionary days of the '60s and '70s: the American girl Sister Africa who mee her father while detained on Robben Island; the housemaid/spy Timawo who works for a bigoted British Commander and steals all his plans by acting stupid; her husband's pan-African activities in American colleges, protesting ignorant white anthropologists who only want to hear drumming.

I hadn't realised how Zimbabwe also had to go through a whole traumatic period of decolonisation, with "Only Whites" signs in the shops and armed struggle: the little girls switching their game of counting the animals in the jungle to counting the guerrilla soldiers. All this overshadowed by the anti-apartheid struggle to their South and the current mess under Robert Mugabe, which has actually been yielding some interesting theatre pieces about the shared oppression of poor blacks and whites, according to Theatre in Sub-Saharan Africa. (I'm in NYC now, so I can't refer to the book and give you names.)

Seems like Zimbabwe has quite a literary tradition! I could've read Doris Lessing and gotten away with it for this country, y'know? Once again, everything's eclipsed by South Africa, darn them.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:
My name shall never appear on the roster of famous battles. To be sure, no great landscape or colossal sculpture or impassioned poem shall bear my signature. I shall not be flying to Rome or London or Oslo for any awards. It is true that I have had no great visions. But I have loved, and surely, this is enough. It is to have tasted from the cup of milk and honey.

Next book: Malama Katulwende's "Bitterness", from Zambia.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book 63, Botswana: "When Rain Clouds Gather" by Bessie Head

I actually really enjoy Alexander McCall-Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective series – even met the man at a literary reading in Singapore and found him delightful; not a snooty British ethnologist but a guy who really cares about and genuinely likes the country he sets his stories in.

Still, I’m really glad I’ve found a work by an author who’s actually from Botswana – a work that’s regarded as one of the top 100 African books of the 20th century, no less!

(Though to be precise, Head is from South Africa, the fruit of a clandestine liaison between a black man and a white woman who fled to Botswana as a refugee during apartheid. Whatevs: she actually took up citizenship and died in the nation. That makes her Batswana enough for me.)

Truth is, however, When Rain Clouds Gather isn’t that great a read. It’s clumsily written (her first novel), with weird motivations and structuring, and it’s didactic as all hell – spends an awful lot of time blathering about what agricultural and economic policies would most benefit the villagers of Golema Mmidi.

The plot’s okay, I guess. Makhaya, a forward-thinking and magnetically handsome young South African revolutionary, illegally crosses the border to become a refugee in the village. He’s discovered by a kindly old man and enlisted as the assistant to a young blue-eyed British economist intent on transforming the feudal agricultural system through collectivism, with tobacco as a cash crop, which kinda goes against our current PC thinking.

Oddly enough, the white folks in the book are good guys – very different in culture and perspective, certainly, but actually bearing the best of intentions for this bit of empire they’ve just lost. This thoroughly disorients Makhaya, who’s used to seeing white men as the enemies of liberation.

The real enemies turn out to be the chiefs: Matenge, who exploits the people by shorting them when he sells their cattle; also the two-faced opposition politicians paid by the CIA to bring down the elitist chief’s sons who’re ruling the nation now as elected officials, having turned against their fathers in the name of the people…

And this is where we link back to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series again, because you’ll remember the books are full of Mma Ramostwe’s praise for Sir Seretse Khama, the first president and the founder of independence, who really was sincerely a good man and a good ruler.

In effect, Bessie Head is narrating the conflicts between the tradition-bound chiefs and the populist reformers who would eventually manage to change the land into a completely respectable modern state, a country that would be exemplary in the African continent if it weren’t for its raging rates of HIV.

Also of interest is the way it reveals how South Africa really underwent development before its neighbours: how Makhaya remembers the vast urban complexes of the country he’s abandoned for the droughty dusty deserts of Botswana, and then realises he doesn’t miss that stuff very much at all.

That’s enough for this post then! I’m flying to New York tomorrow and I must pack.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: There were two such destinies which faced Africa – that of the followers of Solomon and that of a man with no shoes. But the man with no shoes had been bypassed, scorned, and ridiculed while the Solomons stalked the land in their golden Chevrolets. Who would eat then if all the gold and pomegranates went into the house of Solomon? Who would bathe if all the water went into his forty bathrooms? Who would have time to plough if everyone had to join the parade to watch Solomon pass by in his Chevrolet of molten gold, his top hat and silk shirt, glittering in the African sun?”

Next book: Nozipo Maraire’s Zenzele, from Zimbabwe.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book 62, Namibia: “The Purple Violet of Oshaantu” by Neshani Andreas

I’m going to be as brief as possible, because I’ve got way too much on my plate tonight. I’m trying to finish a performance art text for a Japanese artist based in Vienna, and tomorrow I’m performing in a sketch at the Esplanade for NYU Tisch Asia. (Yes, my opportunities sometimes arise from very strange places.)

Anyhow, this is a pretty good book. Not a must-read, but a gentle insight into the complexities of women’s society in late 1990s rural Africa: wife-beating, vicious relatives, markets, thieves, miner husbands, Christian pastors and pagan wise women. Nothing very exotic or political, which of course is a political statement in itself.

The story’s about a lady named Kauna whose husband Shange dies on her suddenly. Given that Shange was an abusive, cheating, lying prick of a bastard she can’t find it within herself to mourn him – she’s more worried about the fact his relatives may think she’s killed him via poison or witchcraft (the belief that you can harm someone by just wishing it is very strong in the narrative). Through the bulk of the book, when everyone’s busying themselves with grand funeral preparations, she does herself an anti-Antigone and refuses to honour her husband: she does not cry, she refuses to speak at his wake.

All this is narrated by Ali, her best friend and neighbour, mind you. And Ali has a great relationship with her husband, not perfect but completely functional. Which is a rather uplifting thing in the end: it demonstrates that good love is possible.

(Interesting detail: pretty much all the men work in mines or factories in other villages/cities while the women stay at home minding shops or families. There’s no sense that this is an oppressive system, though. If you’re a lady you can run your own business and juggle careers, but it’s not the right to work you fight for but for the dignity that supplies in the first place.)

Other oddities: I’ve noticed that there’s a standard African style of fiction, featuring stripped-down English plus a few words in other languages (here the languages are Oshiwambo and Afrikaans, which is apparently big in Namibia still – the fatty flourcakes are called vetkoekies, for chrissakes. You see this style in Ngugi and Achebe; maybe they demonstrated how it’s marketable to the world. Or maybe that’s how Africa speaks English, on the whole.

Andreas does mix it up, though, with her non-linear narrative: we get loads of extended flashbacks revealing their lives before Shange’s death, and almost everything’s in first-person from Ali’s viewpoint, but there’s some omniscient third-person going on too.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

That’s it for Namibia I think! Now to work!

Representative quote: ‘But, Ali, can you imagine what I have to say about that man? Can you picture me saying… No! I am not going to tell the lies that widows tell at their husbands’ funerals. I am not going to say what a loving, honourable and faithful husband he was, while everybody in the village knows what type of man he was. No, I will not make a laughing stock of myself. No, not because of Shange or anyone else,’ she said with finality. ‘Shange does not even expect me to do this.’

Next book: Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather, from Botswana.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book 61, Lesotho: "Traveller to the East" by Thomas Mofolo

I'm still in the middle of reading Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya's Singing Away the Hunger, and a thoroughly good book it is, too - one of those orature-based subaltern women's narratives with unexpected revelations: amidst the oppression, the casual joy of open marriages where she and her husband are free to "share the blanket" with other men and women (yes, other women: she does have a girlfriend at one point, and her husband and that woman's husband also become good friends). Also the snow in the mountains of Maluti: so cold it is blue, so cold that it robs her husband of his ability to walk, then his life.

But of course, I've been fickle Frannie again and chosen to blog about an entirely different book! Behold: Traveller to the East, or Moeti oa Bochabela, in the original Sesotho.

It's a short novel, just 88 pages long in a biggish font, serialised in a fortnightly newspaper to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Paris Evangelical Missionary in Morija, Maseru. As you might have guessed from its cover and its provenance, it's a Christian tract.

But here's the humdinger: it was written back in 1907, making it possibly the first modern novel in all of Africa. Beat that, bitches.

I'm just gonna give you a plot summary here and now: it's about this young tribesman in distant times named Fekisi, fair in form, high in honour and skilled in battle, who is weary of the chaos in his village, where festivals cause drunkenness and violence, where his fellow herdboys are abused by older men and by others (no no, I meant that they hit each other with sticks; no sex in this book, not even with women, whom Fekisi shuns although they enter his scherm in vain hopes that he will court them).

He's inspired by the majesty of the rain, the legends of the heroism of the monster-slayer Kholumolumo and the martyrdom of the virtuous Sankatana, and the dream of Ntsoanatsatsi, the place of the rising of the sun. He's also given subtle spiritual comfort by his cattle, especially the white-faced Tsemeli and the grey-faced Tsoelia, to whom he addresses poetic hymns (making him a bit of Krishna-figure as well as a Christ-figure).

Then one day he's somehow able to call down the punishment of the heavens upon his evil neighbour Phakoane. And the experience disturbs him so much that he goes running off towards the East, towards Ntsoanatsatsi, non-stop without rest or food for several days, encountering more incidents that show him that to live is to suffer (at least in Africa, making him a Siddartha Gautama-figure as well), leaving Basutoland, eventually reaching the endless expanse that is the sea (you'll notice that Lesotho is landlocked), whereupon he meets three white men...

... who do not enslave him as in the slave-narrative of Caryl Phillips's Cambridge but instead take pity on him, nurse him back to health on a ship-voyage to Europe, offer him safe return to his homeland (which he refuses, as he desires only the divine), and teaching him CHRISTIANITY and also writing, by the way.

And then he reaches an unnamed European nation where all men follow God and he attends church on the day of the annual Great Feast and JESUS HIMSELF APPEARS and takes his soul with him in a cloud of smoke that staggers even the white priests.

You can see why I'm intrigued by this text. It's trippy, it's eludes all our postcolonial expectations, it blends nativism and Western doctrine almost seamlessly. It is blessedly heterodox, which is not what I expected of an incipient African text at all: I'd thought there'd be aping of the West, the same as there was in much of Asia when Modernism first arrived (cf. Mori Ogai, Ba Jin, Lim Boon Keng). Also, it uses the word "rhebok" to refer to something other than a shoe brand.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

I'm still going to finish Nthunya's autobiography, mind you: just glad to have encountered this other text. Mofolo's more famous for his historical novel on the Zulu king, Chaka, by the way.

Representative quote: And here Fekisi our young man began to feel frightened and to wonder greatly. He asked himself, what is the sun which shines so brightly? By what or by whom is it guided on its journey from the East to the West? What is it held by that it does not fall to the earth? Where does it go and whence does it return and how does it go and rise again in the West? And what is this its heat which causes all vegetation to grow, and makes people and animals live? Because the sun is life itself, rain without the sun does no good, the sun is like the bread that we eat every day and by which we live, the rain is like meat, a thing of occasions only. And its strength, how great it is! Its warmth which gives life, its warmth like that of a sitting hen, when she warms the eggs so that chickens may come forth!

Next book: Neshani Andreas's The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, from Namibia.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book 60, South Africa: "Burger's Daughter" by Nadine Gordimer

Hey look! It's almost exactly a year since I started this reading journey! Sure, it's not 80 books, but 60 ain't bad either.

And South Africa's a good country to be in for our anniversary. Besides the fact that it's an important nation with an epic political and literary history (I've read Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, Athol Fugard's , and J.M. Coetzee'sWaiting for the Barbarians and Summertime before), I'm actually going to the country in June! Johannesburg, Cape Town and Kruger National Park! How cool is that?

But on to the monumental Burger's Daughter now, a book written in the wake of the Soweto uprising, initially banned in South Africa and requested as prison reading material by Mandela himself.

The Wikipedia article says the book was banned for "propagating Communist opinions", "creating a psychosis of revolution and rebellion", and "making several unbridled attacks against the authority entrusted with the maintenance of law and order and the safety of the state", but 17 years after the fall of apartheid it comes across as far more complex. The truth is, it contains not only the urgent and obvious need to bring down the racist laws of unequal justice but also the contradictions of the characters' ideologies: Lionel Burger and his daughter Rosa are white Communist South African activists (he by conviction, she by inheritance), but their comrades and hangers-on argue over the misplacedness of a white African identity, never mind that your ancestors have been there for 300 years; the impossibility of ever rectifying for the privilege you have by race; and then what about the fact that Communism's worst abuses have been revealed by Solzhenitsyn; what kind of utopia are you chasing after that?

(Really; it just goes to prove again that only the most insecure governments will censor political art. Artis always polysemous, but a narrow-minded policy-maker will be unable to see that.)

It's funny; the story begins with the life imprisonment of Lionel Burger so I thought this was going to be one of the political detention narratives I've been reading so much of recently. But of course the tale's about the eponymous daughter: how she deals with being reared for struggle against the government while not being of a heroine's disposition herself - she knows the system's wrong, she's just very lost as the last of her line.

It resonates. I mean, I've been involved as a volunteer against our own unjust system of government, and people think I'm bad-ass 'cos I wrote poems about it but the truth is I mostly use my ass for sitting on; I could name you about two hundred Singaporeans who do more activism than I do off the top of my head. And I'm not even doing much writing either: just as Rosa spends her time hanging out with dissolute young white academics who build yachts in their backyards or study Spanish literature, or else with passionate activists who accept her as one of their own but argue over her head.

And what does she do to heal herself? She gets a passport (no easy thing for the scion of a political scapegoat) and leaves the country. And is renewed, somehow (the book is terribly rhizomatic, perspectives shifting from first person to third and even to her father's biographer and the state that's investigating her, but there is a wonderful climax) and returns home and things change, maybe not of her own doing, but she seems to have figured out a little more of herself by the end when she's in prison hearing her fellow comrades singing Miriam Makeba's click song (hey, that's a link with the author of our Swaziland stop).

Everyone's telling me I need to do the same. Get off this island and write properly. See how, see how.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

In the meantime, may I point out that I don't think I've ever seen the experience of a beautiful young woman being presented with such intimacy and complexity by a writer before - a perspective neither defiant nor heroic nor victimised; a clear intelligence that has dignity yet a frustrated agency, haunted by a past that should empower her - a bit of a female Hamlet, really. The book requires patience, but it is quite, quite remarkable.

Representative quote:The middle-aged cosmetic saleswoman and the few customers not too self-absorbed to glance up saw a kaffir-boetie girl being kissed by a black. That's all. They knew no better. That house was closer to reaching a kind of reality through your kind of reality than I understood. You and I argued in the cottage. Sex and death, you said. The only reality.

Next book:Mpho Matsepo Nthunya's Singing Away the Hunger, from Lesotho.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book 59, Swaziland: "Sangoma: My Odyssey into the Spirit World of Africa" by James Hall

Yeah! Starting out on Africa now!

Don't know how genuine this memoir is - it's a personal account of being the first white person to undergo training to be a sangoma, or a Swazi shaman - but it is riveting. Unputdownable. Finished it in a single night.

Hall says he's not an anthropologist - the sangomas who trained him wouldn't have stood for that. His background's actually in Hollywood screenwriting.

He got drawn into the ritualistic business while doing a biography of South African music legend Miriam Makeba. She recognised his psychic talents when he kept finishing her sentences and told him he'd have to get into contact with his ancestral spirits and become a sangoma, or else they'd destroy him. So he somehow got the courage to sell off his vintage Cadillac and say goodbye to his whitebread Chicago family to spend two years in the Swazi homesteads, sharpening his mind through guessing games and medicinal vomiting. (Seriously.)

At this point I'm remembering my brother's accounts of the Tibetan lamas he met while on a student research trip, who'd pander to wide-eyed Westerners by claiming they were monks in previous lives and selling them overpriced amulets. Still, the account rings true. Hall describes his battle with rational sense, the bizarre state of trance as spirits speak through his body, the strangeness of having his miraculously newfound clairvoyance dismissed by Swazi patients who only want to know the cures for their bad luck.

But the multiculturalism of Hall's lidlotis does stretch the bounds of credibility a bit. He's possessed not only by his Italian-American grandmother, but also a Scottish farmer, a Swazi zebra hunter, a miscarried foetus, a 1930s American ad exec named Harry, a Native American shaman called White Feather and a Japanese girl called Winter Blossom (I kid you not).

Sure, he's more globally mobile than the average Swazi sangoma, so he's going to be picking up spirits willy-nilly, but jeezus, Winter Blossom?

Of course, all that mixed-upness is characteristic of Hall's very predicament: he was a white man being initiated into a spiritual craft usually practised by black women, mind you, not men. All this was happening in the late eighties, too, so he'd receive a copy of Time magazine and realise he'd been digging for roots while the Berlin Wall fell, and no-one had told him a thing.

Strange overlaps with another memoir, I've been reading, actually: Beyond the Blue Gate, by Singaporean political prisoner Teo Soh Lung. She was detained for almost the exact same period of time, and also went through a process of spiritual harrowing and struggle.

But pah; ignore all that. This book's much more Hollywoody: the guy even gets the girl (an older woman with a 17 year-old son, but still) and adopts an impoverished African child, and they live happily ever after in their own homestead. The author's even got his own Linkedin profile: no mention of whether he still practises as a sangoma, but he has started a film festival. Bully for him.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

I'd thought this book would be a good introduction to Africa: a rather lightweight contemporary outsider's view of an exotic culture. But it's ended up being a much fuller, more immersive tale of a man who became African. With any luck, this reading stint should have a similarly transformative effect on me.

Representative quote: Gogo Ndwandwe had been predicting it. MaZu and her bones had foreseen it. At night, more and more people were crowding the Indumba in order to witness it. And when it struck, I could not deny that it had happened. The lungs were mine, but not the will that used them, and though the strange howl that erupted from beneath the sheet came from my throat, it was not mine. Those who heard it swore to this fact.

Next book: Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter, from South Africa.