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.