The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Brilliant. I absolutely loved this novel and it will definitely feature in my Best Reads of 2021.

Best African Women Writers UgandaThe First Woman might even have surpassedher debut novel Kintu which was fabulous and my outstanding read of 2018.

Firstly I am a huge fan of literature that takes us elsewhere, into the storytelling traditions of other cultures, seen from the inside, told in a way that doesn’t alienate a reader from outside that culture, but has both a particular and universal message. And secondly, when a novel has all the essential storytelling elements.

And Jennifer Makumbi’s storytelling has all the elements – great, unforgettable characters, a ‘moving at pace’ plot, a little bit of mystery, a whole lot of feminism, plus controversy, multiple perspectives, mini dramas and the wise counsel of women who’ve had enough of past injustices.

Then there is the contrast of the rural life and upbringing versus an urban existence, the striving for and effect of education on girls and the natural way that local Ugandan folklore and ancestral stories are interwoven throughout their way of living, learning and coming of age. They create a sense of belonging and help young people navigate their concerns, sorrows, strange feelings and unanswered questions in a thought provoking and entertaining way

In Kintu, Makumbi set part of her story in the pre-colonial 1700’s and other parts in modern times; colonial interlopers had left their imprint, but it was not their story nor a story of their influence and so too The First Woman belongs to and is born of its people, whose existence grows and evolves from their unique origins, belief systems and traditions. Their challenges come from within their culture and again Makumbi focuses on what is uniquely Ugandan.

The narrative begins when Kirabo is a teenage living with her grandmother, she develops a curiosity to know who her mother is, she is awakening to a perceived deficit in her life and notices that those closest to her are unwilling to talk about it. So she seeks out Nsuutu, who some refer to as the witch, intuitively knowing she may have knowledge, visiting her in secret.

Though Nsuutu was practically blind, behind her blindness she could see. But Nsuutu was not just a witch – she was Grandmother’s foe. Their feud was Mount Kilimanjaro. Apparently, Nsuutu had stolen love from the family.

Nsuutu tells Kirabo that she has “the original state” of the first woman inside her. This explanation and story is shared over various visits and sets up an extremely compelling narrative, as Kirabo learns from this wonderful, empowered but ageing feminist. However, she is warned her not to go looking for her mother, an instruction that feeds her obsession, making it all-consuming.

‘We changed when the original state was bred out of us.’ Kirabo looked at her hands as if to see the change. ‘Was it bad what we were? Is it what makes me do bad things?

‘No, it was not bad at all. In fact, it was wonderful for us. We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it. However, occasionally that state is reborn in a girl like you. But in all cases it is suppressed. In your case the first woman flies out of your body because it does not relate to the way this society is.’

The First Woman Ugandan Literature

US Cover Version

The story is divided into five sections; The Witch (Nattetta, Bugerere, Uganda 1975), The Bitch (Kampala 1977), Utopia, When The Villages Were Young (Nattetta 1934) and Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other (1983).

After Nsuutu’s wise counsel, Kirabo’s life is upended when it is announced she will go to Kampala to live with her father Tom, about whom she has never been curious. She has seen him on and off over the years as he visited the clan in the village where she lives, but now she will go and live with him in the city, where it becomes clear that much more had been hidden from her.

Nsuutu held both her hands. ‘Don’t judge the women you met too harshly.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Often, what women do is a reaction. We react like powerless people. Remember kweluma?’

‘When women bite themselves because they are powerless.’

‘Tell me that whatever happens, you will not make another woman’s life worse.’

‘I won’t, Nsuuta!’ Kirabo was miffed that Nsuutu would ask.

‘Remember, be a good person, not a good girl. Good girls suffer a lot in this life.’

Utopia‘ is when she is sent to St Theresa’s, a girl’s boarding school. An education, a world without men, though interrupted by war and expulsions that occur elsewhere, having the effect of changing the balance of power and perception among the girls as well, many will leave and a new influx will arrive. It is also the period where her friendship with Sio develops.

St Theresa’s was a safe space for them to develop their talents without intimidation, interference or interruption. They owed it to themselves, and to all other girls who did not have their privilege, to excel and to change the world. ‘Our job is to arm the girl child with with tools so she can live a meaningful life, for herself and for the nation.’

The narrative then returns to the past, to 1934 when her grandmother Alikisa and Nsuutu were children and fills in the backstory to their friendship, a pact, their very different aspirations and the effect of the community on how their lives play out. Much of this section is told through letters they write to each other while Nsuutu is at nursing school and Alikisa is at home, having abandoned her plans to become a midwife, encouraged by her father towards teaching.

Finally, a family tragedy brings the entire clan together, and opinions are aired, grievances followed through, threads come together, some rifts are healed, others not, but there is the opportunity to break new ground, and move on from the past, without significant loss.

The First Woman KintuThe First Woman is bold, empowered, authentic storytelling of the highest order, that embraces its cultural origins and exposes the reader to universal emotions, questions, conflicts, shame, friendships, love and humanity it shares.

It is both a story and an act of courage that provokes men and women to consider their roles and the effect their decisions have on others, to consider alternatives, seeking a kinder, more just way of being, rather than repeating the same patters that have existed.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

My review of Kintu

Guardian Review: A girl longs for her absent mother in this frank, witty tale about power and gender roles from the author of Kintu by Alex Clark

Article, Johannesburg Review of Books : A Triump of a Novel: The First Woman can be read as Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s answer to people who like to defend patriarchal power by claiming that feminism is ‘not African’, writes Itumeleng Molefi.

 

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Emezi’s Freshwater was an incredible read and a real insight into a cultural perspective, taking you inside it and experiencing it, so I was very much looking forward to this next work.

Akwaeke Emezi trans literatureThough we learn that Vivek is dead from the cover and in the opening pages, the novel is in a sense a mystery as the details around the death are not revealed until the end. The novel is set in Nigeria, in a community of mostly mixed race families.

The narrative is multi perspective, told through the voice of Vivek, his cousin and close friend Osita and a third-person omniscient narrator. The first chapter is one sentence:

They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.

The market burning down provides a beginning, a middle and an ending, it features in exactly those places, here as a marker or a clue, in the middle as an observation by a previously unknown character whose wife runs a stall in the middle of the market and at the end, when Vivek’s final day is shared.

The first half of the book we get to know the families, Chika, his brother Ekene, married to Mary, then later Chika’s Indian wife Kavita, mother to Vivek. The narrative tells the story of their marriage, of how they try to raise their only child. Kavita is part of a group of women referred to as the Nigerwives.

She had learned to cook Nigerian food from her friends – a group of women, foreign like her, who were married to Nigerian men and were aunties to each other’s children. They belonged to an organisation called Nigerwives, which helped them assimilate into these new lives so far away from the countries they’d come from. They weren’t wealthy expats, at least not the ones we knew. They didn’t come to work for oil companies; they simply came for their husbands, for their families.

The Death of Vivek Oji Awaeke Emezi

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Through the friendships of the mothers, Osita and Vivek become friends with JuJu and Elisabeth. Among themselves, away from school or family and outside of society, they are already a group who is different, and with each other, they are accepting, able to express themselves, though they have each inherited varying degrees of conditioning from their mixed parentage.

Vivek is sent away to school, about which we learn very little, we know he is unhappy and bears scars.

The narrative explores the development of their friendships and sexuality, interspersed with the present day obsession of Kavita, determined to find out how her son’s body mysteriously turned up on their front veranda wrapped in a fabric.

Chika didn’t want to ask any question. Kavita, though, was made of nothing but questions, hungry questions bending her into a shape that was starving for answers.

Maybe it was intentional, but in creating the element of mystery, much about the character of Vivek is held back, perhaps to recreate the effect of what the parent might have experienced, but for me personally, I found it disappointing that the character of Vivek was compromised and an opportunity missed to inhabit that character more.

The deliberate obscuring heightens the effect of the reveal, but sacrifices the opportunity to share something more profound with readers. It’s difficult to develop empathy for a character, when so much is held back and when the potential is clearly there.

That was why they’d kept it from their parents, to protect Vivek from those who didn’t understand him. They barely understood him themselves, but they loved him, and that had been enough.

It’s a novel of secrets and lies and the debate of truth versus respect, in that belief that the two can’t coexist. And the safety inherent within a fear of judgement by some, versus the danger of a lack of fear in others. A theme that is likely to continue to be explored by Emezi.

“Look,” she said, “eventually all secrets come out. It’s just a matter of time. And the longer it takes, the worse it is in the end.”

As I read, I can feel what I am bringing to the narrative, where I want the author to go and by the end they do go some of the way, but not all. And that is on me, it is asking an already courageous writer to go further, to places that us readers, like sports fans, might never go ourselves, but from the benches we shout in encouragement. So I leave the last words to the author, as a reminder to us all of what this is.

I had to remember why I was making this work. I wasn’t making it for institutional validation. I was making this work for specific people — all the people living in these realities feeling lonely and wanting to die because they’re like, this world thinks I’m crazy and I don’t belong here. All the little trans babies who are just like, there is no world in which my parents will love me and accept me. There’s a mission to all of this. Akwaeke Emezi

Further Reading

My review of Freshwater by Awaeke Emezi

N.B. This book was an ARC (advance reader copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I couldn’t stop thinking about this trilogy and all that it depicted after reading, and wasn’t sure how to even write about it, with all it’s implications, meaning and symbolism, implicit within the story and its complicated, unlikable but understandable protagonist.

This Mournable Body Nervous Conditions

Nervous Conditions The Trilogy

A month since I finished it, I waited so I could listen live to Sara Collins (author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton) interview Tsitsi Dangarembga for the London Review Bookshop, following on from her Booker Prize shortlisting.

This exceptional interview should be available soon, one I highly recommend listening to. Dangarembga is such an asset to Zimbabwe and to world literature, for all that she pours into her work and the example she sets in her life, a form of “celebration in resistance”.

Her first book Nervous Conditions, published 30 years ago, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1988 and was hailed as a masterpiece by the grandfather of African literature Chinua Achebe. It was a 5 star read for me, brilliant.

Preview of Nervous Conditions & The Book of Not

Tsitsi Dangarembga Nervous Conditions trilogyOn the surface, as we discover in the first two books of this trilogy (each book can be read stand alone) Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not (links to my reviews below), this is the story of Tambudzai, a girl from a Zimbabwean village.

We are witness to her coming of age and entry into adulthood and how that is influenced by her encounters with the outside world, beginning with her cousin Nyasha and family, who return from living in England changed, possessed of an air Tambudzai aspires to, knowing she will only acquire it via a certain type of education.

Though she succeeds, it marks the beginning of her losing something of herself, in the way that every country that was ever colonised, began a simultaneous descent when their vision of themselves too, was slanted in another direction.

Tambudzai is diligent and focused on becoming something that “others” approve of and pursues it relentlessly, in the belief that this will enable her to succeed and create a more self-gratifying life than she would have been destined for in the destitute village she came from.

This Mournable Body

In This Mournable Body, Tambudzai is at a low point, she has left a job at an ad agency on a principle, having had her work used and feted without acknowledgement. It is a resentment she has never uttered, nor been supported in, and knows it is futile to pursue. Wrongs happen in silence, rights are not up for discussion. But now she is without a job and approaching the limit of the acceptable age to be dwelling in a girl’s hostel.

This Mournable Body Tsitsi Dangarembga

Photo by Drigo Diniz on Pexels.com

As the novel opens, she views herself in the mirror and sees reflected a hideous image, something Collins asked Dangarembga to explain the symbolism of.

“She is consumed with self loathing, and this goes back to, how being black is, if you have not really made that psychological and internal journey, one can still take on all the negativity around blackness from society and internalise it, so in her bid to become educated and shake off everything that she sees as negative and simply disastrous from her life in the village, she has internalised all that, and this is what she sees when she looks into the mirror. She sees a hideous monster that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with. And the whole book really is trying to bring her perception of herself and her actual self together in a healthier manner.”

She moves to a widow’s home and ponders another route out of her self-imposed stuckness. While helping herself to the contents of the vegetable garden, she imagines seducing one of the widow’s sons, though never acts on it. Homemaking has never been one of her aspirations.

Returning to teaching, we recall her experience as a pupil, however what she encounters are wholly different children, the “born-frees”, born after the independence of 1980, who she has difficulty relating to, having been conditioned by a colonial style education.

She considers writing to her cousin Nyasha, who is now living in Berlin, for advice on leaving Zimbabwe, as she begins to feel more and more out of place.

You do not post the letter. Instead, you tear it up and laugh bitterly at yourself: If you cannot build a life in your own country, how will you do so in another? Were you not offered an escape from penury and its accompanying dereliction of dreams through many years of education provided by your babamukuru, your uncle, first at his mission, then at a highly respected convent?

Writing in the Second Person Narrative Style

Author Tsitsi Dangarembga ZimbabweWe see Dangarembga’s evolution as a writer, in her decision to use the second person (you) narrative perspective, something I noticed straight away as it gives the reader a jolt and then it reels you in, making you step inside the mind of the protagonist and experience her thoughts and actions first-hand.

“It created a kind of intimacy that forces the reader to listen and engage with and it enables someone to unburden themselves.”

Tambu has always adapted to fit in and tried to excel to overcome obstacles, in the classroom signs of mental unease appear, she reaches breaking point. And tips over.

Returning to her cousins home, she is further disillusioned, unwilling to accept her reality, her aspirations still carry foreign expectations.

It’s a life of pursuit and escape as each new venture brushes up against values and principles that force her to act when she realises she is compromising who she is. Denial battles with mental stability. When ants appear it’s a sign that a course-correction is required.

Collins describes that use of the second person as a form of “shaking the reader awake” and asks if the novel intended to take a nation and shake it awake. Although it wasn’t Dangarembga’s intention to write specifically about the nation, that is perhaps something that unfolds as she explains:

“You can not be who you are outside of the context that you are living in, and so of course your context is going to determine you. The question for a writer is how far do I want to follow that kind of interconnection between an individual and society and for me that has been my subject matter in these three novels.”

And here in this longer quote, she speaks about the necessity and importance of an individual and a nation to be able to have choices, to be able to reflect, something that is taken for granted by those who are not oppressed.

“The idea of shaking awake was on my mind, my feeling was that our society in Zimbabwe does not really reflect very much, it’s very much about getting the next meal, making sure that things are working and this goes back into our culture pre-colonial days, because it was never the utopia that people like to think it is sometimes, and especially the state likes us to think that everything was wonderful pre-colonial days. 

There were our fair share of troubles, and the climate here has never been very abundant, so just the general things of food and surviving were very practical issues that people had to engage with and there wasn’t that much time to reflect

I felt that we needed to find a way to reflect, but to reflect in a way that wasn’t about pointing fingers and reflecting externally, but to see how we are part of the whole process and then if we understand how the ways we think and behave and the culture that we have built up, is complicit in creating the conditions that we are living in now, I felt that we would perhaps be able to think our way out of the situation. It had to be done gently, it had to be done in a non-accusatory manner and so these were the things on my mind when I wrote This Mournable Body.”

When NPR’s Sacha Pfeiffer interviewed the author, she asked what message Tsitsi Dangarembga was giving to young Zimbabweans, given the despair of her anti-hero Tambudzai:

“What happens is up to us because Tambudzai – all she’s concerned with is getting ahead in her own life. I show that that kind of attitude may lead to a person getting what they want for some time. But in the end, the repercussions of that kind of behaviour are going to be felt by everybody…because since the economy is so difficult, people think, I just have to put my head down and do what’s best for me. But that doesn’t solve the community – and – national – level issues that we have to engage with.”

Highly Recommended and gets my vote to win the Booker Prize 2020.

My Reviews of Zimbabwean Literature

Novuyo Rose Tshuma ZimbabweNervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga Book #1

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga Book #2

House of Stone by Novuyo Rose Tshuma – Highly Recommended by Tsitsi Dangarembga (published 2018)

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (shortlisted for Booker Prize & the Guardian First Book Award, 2013)

Further Reading

Review: This Mournable Body by Mphuthumi Ntabeni

Born Free: 40 Years After Independence in Zimbabwe by Thandekile Moyo

Listen/Read: Sacha Pfeiffer NPR, interviews Tsitsi Dangarembga ‘This Mournable Body’: A Novel About Life In Independent Zimbabwe

Article, New Yorker by Teju Cole: Unmournable Bodies – inspiration for the title

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

I was eager to read The Shadow King (shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020) to learn more about the history of the country, although perhaps if I am honest, I am more interested in the people and the culture, without reference to another culture that is trying to invade or colonise it. Ethiopia became one of only two African nations to have never been colonised, despite attempts following the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 when 14 European countries divided Africa among themselves.

Ethiopia Flag the Shadow King

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

For the culture, the people and their history are so much more than the slim chapters that get all the attention, when power hungry regions and men look for prestige and/or revenge and the media (with its inevitable bias) makes everyone look. And if those nations that invade come out looking bad, or worse humiliated (especially by women), then you can be sure the stories will be buried and/or rewritten so as not to offend the innocent of their own country.

Italy Invades Ethiopia 1935

Ethiopia defeated Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in the nineteenth century (1896), saving them from Italian colonisation, so their subsequent aggressive incursion in 1935, one that provides a framework for this novel, might be seen as revenge or an attempt to boost Italian national prestige by exercising this second attempt to assert control and join their European brothers in having a colony of their own.

The Shadow King Maaza MengisteBut the novel isn’t about politics, it concerns a few players and characters, who we are given glimpses of, in a style that is like a series of snapshots, a narrative that therefore has gaps and not the fluidity of a traditional story, nor enables us to really get to know too well the characters, limited as we are by this kaleidoscopic technique.

A Photo or A Thousand Words

I heard/saw Maaza Mengiste during the (online) Edinburgh BookFest this year and learned that she was indeed aided in her research and imagination by a set of photographs, something that reminded me of On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, an author who also used photographs to aid her storytelling ( a memoir of her mother), however Cumming shares the photographs with the reader and Mengiste  shares two, requiring the words to work even harder for the reader. I found this device here a distraction, not expecting a literary device, I had expected more of a character lead historical narrative, a warning not to create expectations before reading. In the talk she gave, she showed some of the photographs that had inspired some of the narrative, she had surrounded herself with them as she wrote.

A Woman’s Lot & What She is Capable Of

We meet orphaned Hirute, who works as a maid for a husband and wife of nobility, Aster and Kidane, brought into their family due to a promise made to her parents. A fractious relationship exists between the three of them, there is dependence, resentment, attraction, jealousy and comradeship. A heady mix. With the nation at war, and tired of waiting for Kidane to return, the women decide to participate in the fight, an inclination also connected to the gun Hirute was left by her father, one that Kidane took from her, that she is determined to retrieve and use.

Ethiopian Woman The Shadow King Maaza MengisteOne evening they listen to the radio and hear the (now) famous words of Empress Menen of Ethiopia disclosing the aggression to the World Women’s League,  appealing to all world nations:

“We all know that war destroys mankind, and in spite of differences in race, creed, and religion, women all across the world despise war because its fruit is nothing but destruction.

War kills our husbands, our brothers, and our children. It destroys our homes, and scatters our families. At this hour and in such a tragic and sad period, when aggressors are planning to bring a heavy war into our lives, we would like to bring this to the attention of all women through the world, that it is their duty to voice and express solidarity against such acts.”

Women participated in this war, not just an historical fact, but one that Mengiste discovered lay in her own family, (her great-grandmother enlisted to fight). It was a subject few talked about, and one that history books seem to have omitted, to the point where few female veterans remain, whose stories can be told. One can see how easily their experiences are relegated to myth and the author is to be commended for the 10 years of perseverance it took to bring this story to light.

Though she uses her imagination, it is historical fiction after all, this is not a fantasy or adventure, and the role these women took on and the sacrifices and risks they took in doing so, meant they were heroines not in the traditional masculine sense, but that they showed solidarity towards keeping these invaders away and presented an image of provocation and strength, one that no European army, likely had ever seen.

“I realised that the closer I looked at women, the more I began to understand the many different battles that they were fighting; the conflicts were on the battlefields, but they also happened in the military camps. Women had to contend with multi-layered violence; there is fighting as soldiers, but there is fighting as women whose bodies are imagined to be the territories for their compatriots.”

Space is also given to a conflicted soldier in the Italian army, who, while fighting under orders from his own country, learns that his own survival is under threat, when all soldiers are asked to complete a census. Though he states his religion as none, his  name makes him a target of another European aggression going on at that time. He provides a counterpoint to the aggression and his occupation as photographer, a man who sits for hours in contemplation of his subject, often under orders, is a source of both horror and soulful reflection.

Never Admit Defeat, What About Forgiveness?

In an interview, Mengiste tells of a visit to Calabria in the south of Italy for her first book (set in 1974), when a man stood and asked if he could talk to her about 1935; it was a tense and emotional moment from a man asking for forgiveness for what his father had been involved in.

Italy has not talked about this history; it’s still difficult for Italians to comprehend what they did in east Africa. A few people grumbled for him to sit down. But he was visibly shaken and emotional. He told me that his father was a pilot during the war. He said: “My father dropped poison on your people. How do I ask for your forgiveness?” And he started crying.

It was at that moment that I said to myself: “My God, this history is not done, this war that feels distant but is not distant. There’s still the question, How do we bridge this gap between us?”

The Shadow King goes some way towards bridging that gap and opens the way for more to seek answers and ask more questions and to remember that women are not a mere footnote in history, there are thousands of untold stories from the past of their endeavours.

This was a slow moving, challenging read, many may not have the patience required to read it, but I’m glad I persevered.

Maaza Mengiste, Author

was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1974. Her family fled the Ethiopian revolution when she was a child a history she explores in her first novel, one I’m looking forward to reading.  A Fulbright Scholar and professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, she is the author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, named one of the Guardian’s Ten Best Contemporary African Books. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Times.

Further Reading

New York Times Interview : The ‘Detective Work’ Behind a War Novel by Wadzanai Mhute Nov 12, 2020

Guardian Interview: The Language of War is Always Masculine

10 Surprising Facts About Ethiopia

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2006) (Zimbabwe)

A Zimbabwean Trilogy

A year ago I read and loved Nervous Conditions the first book written by a Black woman from Zimbabwe to be published in English. The author won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize with it in 1989, which led to translations in many languages.

Her most recent book, the third in this trilogy This Mournable Body was nominated for the Booker Prize and recently shortlisted. I’m eager to get to it, so this is my first read after WIT month, and I eagerly await what will happen to Tambu,  despite the sense of disillusionment.

Most of this second novel takes place in the ‘Sacred Heart’ catholic girls boarding school she is sent to by her uncle, though the tone is uncomfortably set in the opening pages while she is at home with her family. There is a war going on, ever present in the background, setting them all one edge.

They must attend a compulsory village meeting, where a landmine causes her gun-carrying older sister to lose a leg and her Uncle, her educational sponsor and her hoped for ticket out of the village is charged with being:

not exactly a collaborator, but one whose soul hankered to be at one with the occupying Rhodesian forces. Mutengesi. The people in the village said Babamukuru was one who’d sell every ounce of his own blood for a drop of someone else’s.

Mother Daughter Relationships

Tambu’s relationship with her mother is complicated, she finds little solace there, knowing she can never undo her mother’s resentment, unless she fails.

How does a daughter know that she feels appropriately towards the woman who is her mother? Yes, it was difficult to know what to do with Mai, how to conceive her. I thought I hated her fawning, but what I see I hated is the degree of it. If she was fawning, she was not fawning enough. She diluted it with her spitefulness, the hopeless clawing of a small cornered spirit towards what was beyond it. And if she had spirit, it was not great enough, being shrunk by the bitterness of her temper.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Tambu sets even higher expectations on herself to achieve in her education than her Uncle or anyone else and is frequently self-critical. We know from book one that her sponsorship in education came at the price of her brother’s demise, she wasn’t supposed to be the one to achieve, he was.

Due to her family’s low expectations, she wants to succeed. Due to her Uncle’s sponsorship and high expectations, she needs to succeed. Due to her perceived privilege as one of the few black girls at the mostly white catholic girl’s school, she has to work doubly hard to gain her achievements, with no guarantee of recognition.

As I liked to be good at what I did, I was not afraid of hard work. I would put in what was required to reach the peak I aspired to. It was especially important to be at the top, as it was quite clear to me and to everyone I had to be one of the best. Average simply did not apply; I had to be absolutely outstanding or nothing.

Photo by u0130brahim on Pexels.com

All of these expectations to be and do and know according to a multiplicity of expectations affect her behaviour and attitude, to the point where there is little of her authentic character able to shine forth.

On one level it is the story of a girl from a modest village family trying to become something else and on another level it demonstrates the mutation of an individual, trying to conform to a system that was designed elsewhere, within which she is perceived as being inferior, even though she is the one who is at home, living in her own country and culture. She tries hard to suppress her emotions, fearing they will contribute to her failure.

‘What is the matter?’ Sister was very anxious.
‘I’m fine,’ I told her. My favourite teacher was anxious. But my sister lay first in the sand and then in a hospital bed without a leg. What would Sister do if I told her? What would the other girls do if they heard? They all had their little boxes tight in their chests for their memories of war. There was too much grief here for a room full of girls. Thinking this, I did let go. I forgot about not letting anything out. I kept on wiping so that my tears fell on the cloth sleeve. It was like that when people were kind to you. Sometimes you forgot.

A Colonial Impossibility

It’s a thought-provoking, multi-layered novel and look at an aspect of the effect of colonialism through one girl’s education, her striving to succeed and the systemic prejudice that prevents her from being able to do so in a way that is easier for the Europeans. It’s also about the development of her undu (personhood), something she strives for, that is undermined by the system within which she attempts to develop it.

It is set during the tense and frightening period of fighting against colonial oppression, and the emergence of a new Zimbabwe – news of which occasionally filters in to the school, causing the disappearance of some of the students, and a fear for those like Tambu, who harbour confused, dual loyalties.

Scattered throughout the text are words and phrases in her maternal language, translated at the back, that add to the sense of a cultural insight and a reminder that this isn’t just a coming-of-age story of a young woman in a boarding school, it highlights the increasing dysfunction of one’s ”personhood’ while trying to fit into an alien system that is riddled with a sense of superiority she can never attain, because she is ‘not’.

Further Reading

An Interview with Tsitsi Dangarembga by Caroline Rooney following publication of The Book of Not, June 2007

My Reviews of Zimbabwean Literature

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988)

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2020)

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (2018)

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (2013) shortlisted for Booker Prize & the Guardian First Book Award

 

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

This novel is like nothing else I’ve ever read, it describes an inner world, an occupied mind, from that inside. It puts the reader in a position of imagining, perhaps even to a certain degree understanding, what it might be like to have your subconscious and conscious mind occupied by other entities, entities with a voice, with personality, that from time to time take over the body, affect behaviour, talk to you and through you.

Reality is depicted from their perspective, giving full voice to the multiple entities, birthed (through traumas) at different times during the life of Ada (her name though her father told her just meant ‘precious’, in its truest form, meant, the egg of a python), who was born a girl (though doesn’t stay one) in Nigeria and educated in America, where much of the narrative takes place.

We become aware of their presence from the opening pages, before they are awakened within Ada, in a chapter that is utterly compelling as we come to realise who the ‘we‘ is that is narrating much of the story. And ‘we‘ is not the only non-human narrator.

These personalities inhabit a place (referred to in the text as the marble room) within the body/mind, they lie dormant until they are awakened, they keep each other company in that space, they co-habit this one body and constantly justify their existence and inclinations and sometimes act out on them, though they too seem capable of evolving, just as their human needs to and does. And just in case you think this is sounding like fantasy or science fiction, it’s not, this is a semi-autobiographical novel, much of it corresponds to the author’s experience and perceived reality of the world.

These multiple entities exist, they are not illusions or metaphors, they have names and characteristics that manifest into different behaviours through human ‘Ada’ who simultaneously suffers from them, is supported by them, at times is even dependent on them. They are one, but with many aspects that from the external perspective risk being judged as something labelled otherwise depending on the country/culture – such as personality disorder or schizophrenia due to our limited view in defining other states of being. When one entity is more present, Ada’s way of being in the world alternates between her human personality and that of the other presence, whether it’s we, Asughara, or Saint Vincent.

Ogbanje by Akwaeke Emezi

From the perspective of Nigerian ontology (philosophical study of the nature of being), Ada (as the author also self-identifies) may be perceived as ‘ogbanje‘, a child that usually doesn’t live long and is often reborn into the same family. It is believed that these children recognise the difficulty of living in this world and choose to leave it, only on arriving at the gates of heaven they’re denied entry, they’re judged as being lazy and indolent and are sent back to try again. When they are present in the world, they often have particular psychic abilities and/or an other-worldliness about them, they’re believed by some to be possessed, they don’t particularly enjoy the dense, limited human body and experience.

Ogbanje (noun): An embodied spirit passing as human, who transitions rapidly between birth and death, i.e. possessing the ability to ‘come and go’.

Only the child Ada is saved from a death that might have sent her back by her father, a modern Igbo man with medical training from the Soviet Union and years of living in London. He did not believe in anything superstitious that might have made him view the scene he rescued her from as anything other than death. In rescuing her, he prevents the entities from leaving.

He had no idea what he had done.

Akwaeke Emezi depicts these influences and describes being human as a temporary vessel for this other kind of presence which until Ada understands and accepts it, she will continue to suffer as if she is one and not all of them. The ability to make them so real to the reader, to create what feel like real characters from them, is astounding.

“All the madnesses, each and every blinding one, they can all be traced back to the gates. Those carved monstrosities, those clay and chalk portals, existing everywhere and nowhere and all at once. They open, things are born, they close. The opening is easy, a pushing out, an expansion, an inhalation: the dust of divinity released into the world. It has to be a temporary channel, though, a thing that is sealed afterward, because the gates stink of knowledge, they cannot be left swinging wide like a slack mouth, leaking mindlessly. That would contaminate the human world – bodies are not meant to remember things from the other side. There are rules. But these are gods and they move like heated water, so the rules are softened and stretched. The gods do not care. It is not them after all, that will pay the cost.”

At one point Ada seeks out a therapist and at first her entities don’t notice, they are not always present, but they’d told her to keep them inside her head, in the marble room, so no one could see them.

So when she started looking up her “symptoms”, it felt like a betrayal – like she thought we were abnormal. How can we be, when we were her and she was us? I watched her try to tell people about us and I smiled when they told her it was normal to have different parts of yourself.

The entities try to fulfill their destiny (to return to their spirit siblings) and thus sabotage Ada’s attempts to live a human life with minimal suffering. It’s a constant challenge to navigate life, until they learn to live in harmony and she understands her purpose after an encounter with a historian, who tells her what she needs to accept.

“The name that was given to you has many connotations, you hear?” He wore glasses and spoke in a rush of words. “The python’s egg means a precious child. A child of the gods, or the deity themself. The experiences you’ve had suggest that there is a spiritual connection, which you need to go and learn about. Your journey will not be complete until you do that.” He leaned back and folded his arms. “There is nothing more anybody can tell you. It’s important for you to understand your place on this earth.”

Truly an astounding, transparent work that takes an understanding of the being part of human into another dimension. The way it seamlessly moves from the material to the immaterial, combining human and spiritual aspects of selves, on a journey to assemble some way of living with them both, in a world where the majority live within and perceive only one aspect and dimension, a world indeed, where it can be dangerous to articulate this alternate reality.

I thought it was brilliant, definitely a 5 star read for me and truly deserving of being on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

A debut novel said to have an autobiographical slant, this is how Akwaeke Emezi brilliantly articulates what the writing of it meant to them in an interview with Ms. magazine:

I wrote Freshwater as an analysis of sorts—the ogbanje figuring out what it is, ascribing legibility to itself. We look at our worlds through a limited range of lenses, and making this book meant choosing a different center to tell the story from, a different lens to look through.

Once that shift was made, it came with such clarity—the world finally making sense. Being a strange thing in a human world and not knowing what you are is immensely difficult, and I think Freshwater walks us pretty intimately through what living in that space feels like.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

New Yorker: A Startling Debut Novel Explores the Freedom of Being Multiple by Katy Waldman

Interview: The Ms. Q&A: Akwaeke Emezi on Freshwater and Finding Home by Taliah Mancini

N.B. Thank you to publisher Grove Atlantic for providing a review copy.

Buy a copy of Freshwater via Book Depository

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L.McFadden

I’ve been aware of Bernice McFadden’s name as a writer I might enjoy, so when I saw her latest novel Praise Song for the Butterflies chosen as the monthly read by the Literary Fiction by People of Colour group on Goodreads, I decided to read along in February, to benefit from the opportunity to engage with other readers and to see their questions being answered by the author, about some of the choices she made while writing the book.

Interested in the inspiration for writing a novel, this one intrigued me; Bernice McFadden visited Ghana in 2007 and while she was there met two women who told her about a rehabilitation centre and a tradition referred to as trokosi, which they explained and suggested she write a book about, an idea she initially laughed at, but after researching the practice, a story began to emerge that she eventually pursued.

The novel is set in a fictional nation of Ukemby (avoiding comparison with the geography and customs of a specific African country), the first two pages provide a brief history of this fictional land, with its recent colonialist history, new schools, a period of outlawing African God worship or speaking local languages and their subsequent independence, freeing people to  openly practice older customs and traditions.

Shrine  slavery was one of the  traditions that ascended from the darkness back into the light.

A slim 3 page chapter entitled AFTER New York City 2009,  sets the reader on edge wondering what happened to lead to that collision of events, as the first provocative sentence opens with:

On the morning of the day she killed him, the sun sat high and white in a sky washed clean of clouds by an early-morning downpour.

From there we move into BEFORE, Port Masi, Ukemby  1978 – 1985. The novel gripped me from its opening pages and made me not want to do anything but stay with young Abeo as if to hasten her escape from the wretched situation superstition put her in.

We know from the blurb that she is going to be sacrificed by her father, under pressure from his mother, to atone for a curse believed to have been passed down from their ancestors.  Until that moment, it seems impossible, given the early success and education of her parents, I read those initial pages, wondering what it could be that changed the good fortune of this happy family.

When Aunt Serafine comes to visit from New York, the family take a trip across the border to Ghana, and visit the slave castle. After debating whether or not it is appropriate to take young Abeo, her mother relents and she joins them. A sense of foreboding lurks as they descend into the dark interior of the castle, her imagination running rife.

What struck fear into her young heart  was the history that lay beyond the wooden panels and brass hardware. Morris had revived history and little Abeo was finding it hard to distinguish between the now and what had been.  Morris reached for the door handle and Abeo’s breath caught in her throat.  She ordered her eyes to close, but they refused, and so she  braced herself for the vision of the ship bobbing on the ocean, its deck teeming with shackled cargo.

Elmina, Slave Castle, Ghana

It’s when things go wrong, when the family’s luck changes and the son comes under the undue influence of his mother (I recall this similarly in Ayobami Adebayo’s excellent Stay With Me ) that relationships get tested, families risk disintegrating and wives become disempowered.

When Abeo’s family falls on hard times, her father, in his desperation begins to doubt himself and the system that should bring justice. Instead he is lead to follow the old ways, thinking it will bring him peace of mind. In an impulsive moment, seized by and giving in to terror, he does the unthinkable, delivering his daughter to a religious shrine.

It was 1985; Abeo was nine years, seven months and three days old.

I worried the story was going to depict brutality, especially after recently reading House of Stone, where Novuyo Rosa Tshuma exposes the reader to the graphic horror of Gukurahundi, in newly independent Zimbabwe, however I was relieved to discover that McFadden spares us the terror if not the cruelty, we imagine what happened, though thankfully there’s no visceral portrayal. One reader asked why she chose to spare readers this, suggesting her method was more like leading a reader by the hand to the truth rather than holding them by the head to something too awful to take in.

In my earlier works I was much more graphic with my descriptions of horrific events. I think pulling back from that had much to do with me seeing so much violence against Black people on the news and social media platforms. Subjecting my character, myself or the reader didn’t seem to serve anyone involved.

Interested in the title, I looked up ‘Praise Song’ and learned it is one of the most widely used poetic forms in African literature; described as ‘a series of laudatory epithets applied to gods, men, animals, plants, and towns that capture the essence of the object being praised’.

It becomes a form of metaphor, the butterfly a symbol of transformation and rebirth;  in the novel Duma, the oldest of the priest’s sons rips a newspaper to shreds, intending to ignore what has been read inside it, the pieces are picked up by a gust of wind, catching the girls’ eyes, seen as butterflies. Though an illusion, it signifies a turning point, a sign of hope, of liberation, they are experiencing life in one form and soon will transform.

Duma folded the newspaper and looked directly into his father’s milky eyes. “It means the government has outlawed what we do here, . It means no more trokosi.

Abeo glanced up and for one fleeting moment her spirit soared. Indeed, at that distance, the bits of newspaper did appear to be a cluster of white butterflies. Abeo watched until the air went still and the false butterflies dropped out of sight.

It was 1998 and Abeo was twenty-two years old, eight months and seventeen days old.

The characters are well depicted, the surroundings set the reader’s imagination alight, we’re taken on a journey, introduced to a terrifying ritual that morphs into another form of traditional domination, however there are shining lights, hope has been gifted a role to play and Abeo has been permitted to interact with it.

I loved the natural, gifted storytelling of this novel, the historical exploration and psychological insight and in particular that she was able to create a scenario that showed us what a healing transformation might look like in the form of resilience.

Bernice McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters and The Book of Harlan (winner of American Book Award and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction). A four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

This is a story of survival and triumph.  I want people to understand that their circumstances don’t always, and shouldn’t always, define their entire lives.

Further Reading

Ancestral Roots:  Bernice L. McFadden sings an enslaved black woman’s song, Interview by Evette Dione

“The interest is not the fact of slavery, the interest is what happens internally, emotionally, psychologically, when you are in fact enslaved and what you do in order to transcend that circumstance.” Toni Morrison

Have you read any novels by Bernice McFadden? Do you have a favourite?

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (2018) Zimbabwe

Bukhosi, 17 years old, has gone missing. His father, Abed, and his mother, Agnes, cling to the hope that he has run away rather than been murdered by government thugs, but only the lodger seems to have any idea. Zamani has lived in the spare room for years now. Quiet, polite, well-read and well-heeled, he’s almost part of the family – but almost isn’t quite good enough for Zamani.

Cajoling, coaxing and coercing Abed and Agnes into revealing their sometimes tender, often brutal life stories, Zamani aims to steep himself in borrowed family history, so that he can fully inherit and inhabit its uncertain future.

House of Stone is a novel in three parts, Book One centres around Zamani’s determination to befriend his landlord Abed, accompanying him in his misery as he searches for his son, applying subtle, manipulative, and ultimately devastating pressure on him, prising Abed’s family history open, in order to find a way in. In Book Two his focus is on converting Mama Agnes and the final slim Book Three are a series of revelations.

We know from the opening pages that Zamani and Bukhosi were together when he disappeared, along with their friend and mentor Dumo, though nothing of what we know is ever shared with Abed and Agnes.

I’m the one who’s survived and he’s the one who’s disappeared, thanks to those mad antics of his. Poof! Like a spoko. He too was gobbled up by one of those police vans the day of the Mthwakzi rally, and has not been regurgitated since.

Like Bukhosi, I doubt I’ll ever see Dumo again. It was he who taught me that a man could remake himself by remaking his past. So when Abednego said I was like a son to him and that he would, from then on, call me his surrogate son, I felt a swell of pride and the prick of opportunity. Perhaps, as my surrogate father’s son, I can be blessed with sole familial affection and, in this way, finally powder away the horrors of my own murky hi-story bequeathed to me by parents I never knew.

As he draws the personal and family history out of Abed and Agnes, we traverse 50 tumultuous years in the region, years Abed would prefer not to remember, they contain his happiest and most traumatic memories, as the country witnesses the death of colonial Rhodesia and the bloody birth of modern Zimbabwe.

It’s a discomforting read, the author doesn’t hold back with the detail, some scenes come at you so quickly, you don’t have time to look away. In that respect I remembered the visceral detail of a novel I couldn’t finish, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Somehow, despite those scenes, I was able to continue with this book, but I was put into a state of literary vigilance for much of it, which wasn’t always comfortable. Humanity showed itself to be unpredictable and despicable in its newfound possession of unregulated power. It was a bittersweet victory that saw the introduction of a despot leader and made an entire population feel unsafe.

One of the periods we are taken back to was the Gukurahundi, (a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987. It derives from a Shona language term which loosely translates to “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”). I hadn’t heard of this term, and in the novel the younger generation hadn’t either. Zamani pressures Abed to tell him:

Isn’t this the hi-story Bukhosi always wanted to know, before he went missing? For which he got a beating whenever he asked our father ‘Baba, what happened in the ’80s, what was the Gukurahundi?

That was the Gukurahundi, Bukhosi. It was the lead rain of our new country, Zimbabwe, sent to wash away us, the chaff. It was the state-sponsored murder of twenty thousand of your kin. How was our father to tell you that? How was he to tell you that within that number were the only two people he ever really loved?

On reading this, I was compelled to look it up, it’s not a story you want to linger on, nor are they images you want to see. You don’t have to read far to learn that none of the perpetrators have been held accountable for the atrocities committed. Those implicated include many who became or are now senior political figures in the Zimbabwean government.

In an interview, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma when asked about setting her novel amidst the backdrop of this massacre, said:

“We speak about the Liberation War all the time. But when it comes to the genocide, it is always a matter of shutting it down,” she says, adding that by not addressing the psychological, social and communal issues, by not acknowledging people have died, healing cannot begin.

House of Stone “dzimba dza mabwe” or “Zimbabwe” in Shona comes from her personal quest to learn more about that dark spot in modern Zimbabwean history, the ethnic cleansing/genocide carried out against the Ndebele people in the early 1980s after the liberation struggle. The strengths of her characters come from an immersion into reading first hand personal accounts of people who survived that period, works that are not available in Zimbabwe, that she was able to access from the Iowa University library when she was studying her MFA.

Interested in the question of whether it is possible for a person, or a nation to rewrite itself, it will become the central motive of her flawed protagonist Zamani and finds that present day Zimbabwe has some parallels. Since the political coup that recently ousted Robert Mugabe, a new President has announced to the population that the past is dead.

When Tshuma began asking questions about the Gukurahundi of her immediate family, including her mother and Uncle, they were visibly upset – people continue to be haunted, they haven’t found closure for the dead, nor been able to process their experiences to heal from them.

I was reminded of the experience of reading Han Kang’s Human Acts, a powerful novel that centered around the little known Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980, that she discovered by accident and became haunted by. It left her with pressing questions she explored through the novel.

Despite the traumatic events that haunt or affect every character, the plot of House of Stone moves swiftly with its well fleshed out characters, sense of mystery, its rage, outrage and her own brand of wit – including the hypocritical Reverend who Zamani doesn’t trust.

Did that Reverend Nobody really think he could take me on? Did he really think he could come out as the hero in all of this, mooching off my hard work, destroying my relations with my surrogate family.

It’s an accomplished novel that confronts harsh truths and pursues questions about the reinvention of a nation and the individual. A gifted storyteller who has been able to weave the essence of those personal narratives into richly formed characters that goes some way towards acknowledging a history no-one will talk about. Bereft of redemption, a feeling that pervades the narrative and one that seems to hold many in its grip today worldwide.

The interview below provides an interesting addition to the reading experience, exploring the fictitious and the personal – in particular given that some of the perpetrators of those traumatic events still hold positions of power today.

Further Reading/Listening:

rFi The World And All Its Voices: Honoring those who lived through Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel, House of Stone

Review:  Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers

My Reviews of Zimbabwean Literature

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Buy a Copy via Book Depository

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

I came across this promising book on a Goodreads group called 500 Great Books by Women  a reference to a book published in 1994 that lists works by women considered notable and influential under different themes such as Art, Heritage, Identity, Ethics, Conflicting Cultures, Choices, Growing Old, Growing Up, Power and more.

Daughters of Africa

The group also includes a list developed from a similar compilation called Daughters of Africa by Margaret Busby an anthology of words and writings by women of African descent, with titles from the 1830’s to 1990.

In an effort to read more widely, writers from different countries and cultures, and in particular the lesser known great books from women, it’s a fabulous resource and members of Goodreads, if they’ve read and reviewed any of these books provide links to their comments/thoughts on them, helpful in discerning whether a book is of interest.

Nervous Conditions was written by the Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga in 1988, it was the first book published by a black woman from Zimbabwe in English. It was awarded the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1989 and has been translated into a number of languages. It is recognized as a major literary contribution to African feminism and postcolonial literature.

If that wasn’t enough of a promise of something rewarding, this quote in the excellent foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah confirmed it.

“Each novel is a message in a bottle cast into the great ocean of literature from somewhere else (even if it was written and published last week in your home town); and what makes the novel available to its readers is not shared values or beliefs or experiences but the human capacity to conjure new worlds in the imagination.”

I thought it was absolutely brilliant, one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in my cross cultural journey, portrayed with such raw honesty, I’m in awe and immensely relieved there is another book to follow, because I’m not ready to leave it there.

Review

It’s a coming of age story of Tambu, a teenage girl, who in the beginning lives in a small village with her parents and siblings and their days are hard, especially the women, who work in the fields all day, do the laundry at the river, transport water to and fro and cook in a kitchen that lacks modern conveniences and requires skill and tenacity to manage. Despite the hard work Tambu loves her village and even the work and chores equally provide moments of pleasure and companionship.

Her Aunt and Uncle return from five years in England furthering their education so he can become headmaster of the mission school. Tambu is disappointed that her cousin isn’t as friendly towards her as she once was, the “Englishness” has changed her cousins. Her brother is offered the opportunity of an education where her Uncle is headmaster.

It had been my uncle’s idea that Nhamo should go to school at the mission. Nhamo, if given the chance, my uncle said, would distinguish himself academically, at least sufficiently to enter a decent profession. With the money earned this way, my uncle said, Nhamo would lift our branch of the family out of the squalor in which we were living.

Tambu forced to quit her education for financial reasons, sets about implementing a plan to earn her own school fees, determined that she shall rise up too. She appears to have the best of both worlds, the grounding, practical, connected upbringing of village life, a work ethic, practical skills in the kitchen and a tenacity that purchased her an extended education, growing her own crop and finding someone to help her sell it, despite efforts by her brother to sabotage her intention and her parents complete lack of faith in her ability to succeed.

A Colonial Education

Thus she too sets off on the path of an education informed by “English influences” though she retains deep family and village values. However, being around and observing her cousin and how her behaviour has changed, and becoming aware of the frustrated ambitions of her aunt, her world view begins to shift , despite dedicating herself to being the most diligent pupil and the most respectful niece possible.

The subtle way her character transitions to greater awareness is adeptly portrayed, her feelings of ambition and regret as she realises it may be impossible to achieve all that she aspires to without losing something of what she had. She observes her cousin rebel and then accept that middle ground, fall victim to it, unable to go back to who she was, becoming alienated from her own, entering into self-destructive territory.

All her characters are multi dimensional, portrayed in a way that even though they inflict suffering on one another, we are made to understand their point of view and realise the dilemmas and complexities they face. There are no villains, or heroes, just humans trying to improve their lot or that of others, sometimes making significant achievements, and at other times grave mistakes.

In an interview the author was asked why she was so generous to her characters, giving them this chance to explain or be explained, she responded:

I employ this strategy so that many different categories of people can find something to identify within the book – also because the situation of the characters is very complex.  One can hold a person responsible for reacting to a situation in a certain way, but the situation that exerted the pressure to behave in that way must also be addressed.

I’m so glad I’ve read this early on, so I can get to the next two books in the trilogy The Book of Not and This Mournable Body. Have you read this modern classic or any other books by Zimbabwean authors?

My Reviews of Zimbabwean Literature

The Book of Not (Book 2) by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This Mournable Body (Book 3) by Tsitsi Dangarembga

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (shortlisted for Booker Prize & the Guardian First Book Award, 2013)

Buy a Copy via BookDepository

Top Reads of 2018

Top Reads of 2018

A Few Reading Statistics

Goodreads Statistics

In 2018 I read 47 books, just under one book a week. Three quarters of them were by women authors and 25% by men. 76% of the books were fiction and 24% non-fiction (poetry, essays, memoir, spiritual).

I like literature from around the world, I read authors from 18 different countries, including Argentina, Taiwan, Uganda, Senegal, India, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Burundi, NZ, Australia and Ireland.

Despite this apparent diversity, half the books I read were by British or American authors, an imbalance I hope to address through more conscious reading in 2019.

It requires more of an effort to find books from other countries that fit my reading inclination, but I will continue to have that as my lead reading intention.  I read 12 books translated from other languages (23%) and I read one in the original French language. 80% of the books I read were physical books and 20% were e-books.

Although I read so many books from the US/UK, as I consider those stories that stood out for me, I find they are predominantly narratives from elsewhere recounting tales of experience and perspective other than the anglo-american one.

Outstanding Read of 2018

Again, my outstanding read of the year came early in the year, one of the most underrated novels of the year, that should have been given more attention, in my opinion.

The historical novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is set in 1700’s Buganda ( the largest of the traditional kingdoms in present-day Uganda, comprising all of Uganda’s Central Region, including the capital Kampala) and modern Uganda.

Kintu is a family name, the thread that runs through the six parts that make up the story, beginning with a curse put on the family name and following it throughout the years and generations. It is a combination of excellent storytelling and insight into a culture, its beliefs and traditions. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

It’s brilliant. We traverse through the lives of these families, witness their growth, development, sadness’s and joys, weaving threads of their connections together, that will eventually intersect and come to be understood and embraced by all as the clan is brought together to try to resolve the burden of the long-held curse that had cast its long shadow over this clan for so many generations.

Top Reads 2018

In no particular order here are the other books that made a significant impression and have stayed with me throughout the year, click on the title to read my review, or the book cover image to purchase a copy:

Petit Pays by Gaël Faye  was the one book I read in it’s original language (French) but which I classify as coming from the Republic of Burundi, where the story takes place. It’s a short novel with a significant impact, that has since been translated into English as Small Country’. It is the story told from the perspective of an 11 year old boy, the son of a French father and Rwandan mother in the year of his life when everything changed. It’s a novel of cultural differences, of being an outsider, of trying to belong, of understanding the motivations and fears of people, of life at the intersection of those things, of having to choose sides. From my review:

It is beautifully told, a simple story to follow, with many beautiful, descriptive passages, even though we know that this time will be short-lived. It opens our eyes to the tensions that escalate into hatred and violence with little sense, the many victims and the many wounded by loss, destroyed by it.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas was the shortest novel I read, and the only epistolary novel, but it was one that had a significant impact, as timeless classics are warrant to do. It’s a brilliant and unforgettable story narrated through a letter by a middle age Senegalese widow writing to her friend who is about to visit. It contains more than she is able to say face to face, an uninterrupted discourse, as letters always must be, the recipient forced to read until the end, the narrator never interrupted, the message allowed to gain momentum and arrive at it’s intended conclusion.

Throughout the narrative she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children and to those who have supported her, including the friend due to arrive, who chose a different path when she was confronted with similar issues to that which the widow is now facing. It’s absolutely brilliant, highly recommended. From my review:

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

Mend the Living or The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal, different titles and translators for the UK and US editions, I read the UK version translated from French by Jessica Moore. This is an extraordinary and original novel that follows a young man’s heart from its healthy teenage introduction through to its successful transplant into a patient waiting for a donor. Rather than focus on the medical procedure, it highlights all the characters involved and connected to the journey of this heart, from the parents of the boy, to the female intern, demonstrating the changing perspectives of all those touched by these sets of events.  From my review:

This is one of those novels that unleashes the mind and sends it off in all kinds of directions, thinking about the impact events have on so many lives, the different callings people have, the incredible developments in medical science, how little we really know and yet how some do seem to know intuitively and can act in ways that restores our faith in humanity.

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi tr. Tina Kover was another translated work of fiction I read in August during #WIT(Women in Translation) month. Translated from French where the author now lives, it is a dual narrative, set in present day France, where a woman sits in a fertility clinic thinking back over her life, both in the present (daughter of parents exiled from their native country and culture Iran) and the past, her own childhood, what she remembers of the circumstances that lead them away from their home and right back to her great-grandfather and his harem of 52 wives.

Spanning a changing, turbulent time in Iranian history, it travels the highs and lows, for while the passionate intellectual freely expresses their opinion and brings no harm, they can continue to live within their culture, family, an active part of society. But when freedom of expression endangers the individual, the sacrifices that must be made stifle and silence them and doesn’t necessarily ensure their safety. Life in exile, without connections to friends, family and like-minded neighbours, reduces them to shadows of their former existence, unable to truly be themselves, to be seen, in a foreign culture. From my review:

I absolutely loved it, I liked the slow drip revelation of what this young woman’s life had become, having been severed from her country and community of origin and the colourful, abundant richness of the family history and culture, which while separate from her life today, existed somewhere deep in her psyche, in her genes, and in those non-genetic aspects we inherit from previous generations even without knowledge of what has passed.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne is a book I bought for my brother last Christmas, so I decided to read it myself early in the New Year, so we could discuss it. It was on a lot of top reads lists for 2017, and deservedly so. It’s the story of the life of Cyril, from the circumstances of his birth and adoption in conservative Ireland through four periods of his life, including time in Amsterdam and New York before his return to Ireland. Cyril encounters many challenges in his life, many of them as a result of failing to live up to perceived societal expectations. From my review:

Boyne peels back the layers of Irish inclinations and attitudes in the 20th century and shows how destructive this closed mindedness is on the lives of anyone who crosses an imaginary line of acceptable ‘being’. This astonishing novel is a courageous, honest attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations, against our own nature’s can be so harmful to so many and it makes us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme.

Little by Edward Carey is another outstanding and original work of historical fiction and a book that left a deep impression, not just for the excellent storytelling and illustrations, but because it tells the story of a woman everyone had heard of yet knew nothing about, she was a trailblazer extraordinaire. Her name as most of us know it today is an illusion, for it tells nothing of the full life she lived before she became Madame Tussaud.

It is the story of the incredible life and survival of a servant girl Anne Marie Grosholt who lost her parents at a very young age and through a series of serendipitious connections, came to be apprenticed to a Swiss medical wax sculptor, whose popularity lead him to flee to Paris, where he resided with the widow of a tailor, another set of skills the young servant girl would acquire, before a chance encounter resulted in her spending eleven years in the palace of Versailles as tutor (Maitresse de Cire) to the princess, until her confidence and boredom combined to get her in trouble, banished back to the widow and her master.

The novel tracks her life and beside it the growing unrest in Paris, as the people rebel against those who ‘have’, against those who ‘rule’, and a frenzy of imprisonments and executions pervade the city, where no one is safe from denunciation and possible death. These stories and the historical references bring the novel alive, in animated prose that explores the noble alongside the grim and ghoulish, for the public of the time desired to see and know it all.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife    This is an incredible work of creativity, a writer working through the post-trauma of domestic violence, living through and escaping an abusive marriage, using her writing to narrate the story of her marriage, seeing it as if she is playing a role in a drama. I avoided this title for a while until it was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and started to receive enticing reviews. It is a ‘tour de force’ and well worth overcoming any inhibitions you might have about reading it.

And in some ways, that is how I think of it: it is easier to imagine this life in which I’m trapped as a film;  it is easier when I imagine myself as a character. It makes everything around me seem less frightening; my experiences at a remove. Less painful, less permanent. Here, long before I ever faced a camera, I became an actress.

The Four Insights – Wisdom, Power and Grace of the Earthkeepers by Alberto Villoldo I couldn’t write about my top reads without mentioning Alberto Villoldo, as I read three of his books this year and loved them all, but this one was the best and was the first I read, because it gives the background and explanations behind the philosophy of shamanic energy medicine in an accessible way.

I absolutely loved it and all its insights, I was familiar with the shamanic levels of perception, of serpent, jaguar, hummingbird, eagle, corresponding to body, mind, soul, spirit and their associated languages. The book expands on those themes and provides deeper explanations of how we perceive at each of these levels, what we need to understand about how we are responsible for creating the reality of each of those levels, and that we can only change our own inner perception and try to uplevel, we can never change another’s perception, except through being the role model that they might perceive and respond to without influence.

And that’s it for 2019, did you have an outstanding read for the year? Or a few? Let me know in the comments below what your favourite(s) were.

Thanks for reading and following and commenting and happy reading to you all for the year ahead.