In this week’s #AkumbuReviews, a translated work is the focus, in an effort to understand what the author set out to achieve.
By Akumbu Uche
In her 2011 short story, ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’, Taiye Selasi observes that “in the peculiar hierarchy of African households, the only rung lower than the motherless child is the childless mother.” This is a sentiment that sixteen-year-old Okomo, the protagonist of Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda (Feminist Press, 2018) understands.
Okomo is both a motherless and fatherless child. Her mother died while giving birth to her, a death the villagers in her hometown ascribe to witchcraft. And since her mother died before her biological father could pay her dowry, she is considered a bastard and belongs to her maternal grandfather. Far from being doted on, she frequently comes under her grandparents’ censure for not being feminine enough since she doesn’t like makeup, wears her hair short, and has failed to bring home a rich lover. On top of that, she is not attracted to men but women; a concept her Fang culture has no word for.
“The sex lives of African girls begin, inevitably, with Uncle.” Taiye Selasi again. However, unlike the predatory uncle in that story, Okomo finds a fellow misfit in Uncle Marcelo, a fam e mina or a “man-woman” in the local parlance, whose refusal to be a real man and reproduce, or so the villagers believe, is causing the crops to fail. It is through his friendship she begins to piece together that there are others like her who do not fit into the strictures of Fang norms.
“But Okomo is not your typical outsider-insider. Her perpetual surprise at everything around her makes her look like she was recently parachuted in.”
But Okomo is not your typical outsider-insider. Her perpetual surprise at everything around her makes her look like she was recently parachuted in. She finds it remarkable that goats wander freely around the village and that the village children are often more undressed than dressed up; her thoughts more at home on the pages of an ethnographer’s field notes than the observations of an Equi Guinean girl who has grown up in the village all her life.
Majority of contemporary, locally-set African fiction takes place in urban spaces. It was therefore refreshing to read work set in a rural community and it made me nostalgic for the village novels of the African Writers Series. Everyone familiar with those literary classics knows that in their pages, forests are not particularly habitable places. At best, they are places of enchantment as in Amos Tutuola’s fantastical ‘My Life In The Bush of Ghosts’. Or worse, as in the evil forests that dot Chinua Achebe’s historical fiction, dumping ground for the breakers of taboo. Obono subverts this trope, presenting the forest as a haven for both Okomo and the Indecency Club, the village’s underground queer community.
“At best, they are places of enchantment as in Amos Tutuola’s fantastical ‘My Life In The Bush of Ghosts’. Or worse, as in the evil forests that dot Chinua Achebe’s historical fiction”
Mirroring traditional coming-of-age initiation rites across the continent, it is also in the shady groves of the forest that Okomo has her first sexual experience with a woman and fully embraces her sexuality. Obono writes a shocking sex scene in a very casual, off-hand manner, which I found worrisome. It could very well be a true that a lot of young people’s first sexual experiences – be they homosexual or heterosexual – often fall on the wrong side of informed consent, and thus, Obono is being realistic in describing the encounter. However, given how much she plays up the villagers’ disregard for autonomy, her inclusion of such a scene feels very much like an own goal.
This is an African novel which challenges the hegemonic view that homosexuality is unAfrican, and will no doubt be regarded as an important LGBT novel. But outside of its ambition and sociological importance, it doesn’t really deliver. The heroine feels more like the author’s mouthpiece for criticism rather than a fully fleshed-out person, and despite the use of first-person narrative, I had to continually remind myself that I was reading a work of fiction, not a thesis. Fiction is all make-believe, and the author has full artistic licence, however, there is no reason why reading a good novel shouldn’t be like watching a master illusionist, the audience aware they are being deceived but at no point ever uncovering the deception. Unfortunately, there is very little sleight of hand here. La Bastarda was obviously written for discourse, rather than entertainment.
“There is no reason why reading a good novel shouldn’t be like watching a master illusionist, the audience aware they are being deceived but at no point ever uncovering the deception.”
But of course, my bias is showing, and I suspect my rigidity concerning how a novel should and should not be written, might just be the kind of thinking Obono is critiquing. Dear Reader, forgive me. My viewpoint is just that, a viewpoint; and my preferences need not be your own. As with any work of art, there are different reasons to enjoy a novel, all valid. If you are the kind of reader who looks to novels for news, you will find plenty here to supplement Equatorial Guinea’s Wikipedia entry; and if you are an arts and humanities scholar looking for a gateway to analyze issues like witchcraft, gender, sexuality, colonialism, or climate change in Africa, this will be perfect for you.
The book is translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel.
Akumbu Uche is a Nigerian writer. Her work has appeared in Bella Naija and Brittle Paper. She lives in Owerri.
#BookChaser: Why I hated reading Iruesiri Samson’s ‘Devil’s Pawn’
I hated reading Devil’s Pawn, and you probably would if you were male. I mean, the male genital was mentioned, probably a hundred times and I kept shivering at the prospect of yet another victim of Simon, the genital hunter, cutting off another. But, you see, Simon’s hunt doesn’t begin without reason. This reason was a bloody crime that made me cringe and almost scream, yes! That the culprits deserve it. But before you wonder what I am rambling about, let me give you some background to this crime thriller that made me think of Agatha Christie and James Hadley Chase, all at once.
When the Black Cats, a university cult group, headed by Emeka decided to punish Ese for refusing the latter’s advances, they never envisioned the bloodier outcome. Yes, they gang-raped her before they murdered her (well, technically, Simon was forced to do it). But little did they know that this wild move would mark them all for hell, one by one, in the most shocking manner.
Now, for me, this is what made me fall in love with the novel – the twist. From a should-have-been cult story to a ‘Hammer House of Horror’ episode where all those involved in Ese’s death are marked for death. Obviously, the author, Kukogho Iruesiri Samson, who won the 2018 Dusty Manuscript Prize for this work is a writer who pays attention to detail. This is evident all through. Published in 2020, I would have normally read this book in the same year, but doing it now, in a way, makes the suspense even more worthwhile. And I am glad I finally did.
Again, twists in plots have always been my thing because I’m not too fond of this ability to know what would come next in the best of stories. So, when I fail to spot the direction, it’s always a joy for me. If I am to venture into the author’s mind a little, I am almost certain the advocation for the castration of rapists at a time in Nigeria inspired this twist. I mean, what better way to illustrate déjà vu than to have one of the culprits be the dead victim’s cutting tool?
I have heard some writers like Toni Kan say in a panel discussion (this was at the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival some years back) that he doesn’t write to pass across a message. But just like I see the scary warning given to rapists in ‘Devil’s Pawn’, I see different messages in practically every work of fiction. For me, the message, whether consciously thought out or not, is what drives the writer, and maybe even the narrative.
Let me give an example: If we are to go out and be all moral about this, even a story that’s characterized as erotica has a purpose. And if the aim is to appeal to readers who appreciate graphic sex, then yes, that’s the message. Every character has a purpose in a work of art, and with this purpose rises a message, whether clear or not, whether a turn-off to some or a joy to others. Samson’s debut novel has the capacity to scare the devil out of any rapist, particularly in this part of Africa where superstitious beliefs are upheld by some.
One thing, though that ‘Devil’s Pawn’ lacks, is excellent proofreading. The editing is excellent, but an equally excellent proofreader would have cleared numerous typos. But still, who says a good book is that which is rid of typos? The best, for me, are those stories that have staying power, driven by suspense and empathy. And this brilliant novel has both.
#AkumbuReviews: Children of the Quicksands by Efua Traoré
Our reviewer takes a look at a book that weaves old-school folktale-telling and contemporary themes for a story unlike any other on the bookshelves today.
A few months ago, I was surprised to learn that a young friend had never heard about the NTA children’s programme, ‘Tales by Moonlight’. Growing up in the nineties, no Sunday evening was complete without switching on the TV to watch Aunty Nkem (Pastor Nkem Oselloka-Orakwue), the show’s host, gather a gaggle of children underneath a tree and regale them with folktales. As I worried aloud that my friend had been starved of what I considered a childhood staple and bemoaned how Nigerian society had lost a vital means of transferring cultural values and mores, I suddenly wondered what my parents and grandparents who, in their youth, had experienced the real, authentic moonlit tales in their villages, must have made of my own mediated and somewhat diluted experience.
Reading ‘Children of the Quicksands’ (Masobe Books, 2022) by Efua Traoré reminded me of this incident and reassured me that all is not lost; there are still avenues where today’s young people can enjoy learning about the same myths and folklore I grew up on.
The middle-grade novel opens as thirteen-year-old Simi is dispatched to her maternal village, Ajao, to spend the holiday with Iya, her grandmother. Her mother has had to leave for a work trip abroad and can’t take her along. Thanks to a long-running family feud, Simi and Iya are strangers to each other. To make matters worse, Simi is an aje butter. City living, coupled with her mother’s helicopter parenting, has ill-prepared her for building a fire, cleaning ofada rice, or hand-washing clothes at the stream, skills that her village-raised peers take for granted. Fortunately, Simi finds new friends in Jay, the Oba’s cool and fashion-forward son, and Bubu, a shy girl who, in her rare talkative moments, tells stories about bush babies and pythons spiriting erring villagers away at night; and she soon learns to adapt to rural life.
However, bush babies and pythons aren’t the only dangers lurking in Ajao. In the middle of the forest is a forbidden lake reputed to be a portal to a netherworld and responsible for the disappearance of several children.
However, bush babies and pythons aren’t the only dangers lurking in Ajao. In the middle of the forest is a forbidden lake reputed to be a portal to a netherworld and responsible for the disappearance of several children. Simi accidentally discovers that she is the only one who can go in and out of the lake, unscathed; a power that may very well be related to Iya’s vocation as a priestess to the goddess Oshun. But while she is still figuring out this secret magical ability and its implications, she and her friends discover the townspeople’s plans to landfill the lake; a move that could have devastating consequences. Intended or not, I couldn’t help but see parallels between this subplot and the recent controversy surrounding the pollution of Nigeria’s sacred Osun river due to mining activities. For parents and educators, this could open up a great way of engaging young readers in discussions on ecological conservation and environmental justice issues.
The backstory about how the goddess Oshun created the quicksands – a netherworld between the land of the living and the land of the dead – which then sets off the chain of events in this tale is an intriguing one. Traoré does an excellent job blending preexisting folklore with her own original inventions, making the story all her own and making it easy to see why she won the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2019, a winning streak that began a year earlier, when she won the 2018 Commonwealth Africa prize with her short story, ‘True Happiness.’ Her grasp of dialogue is excellent too. Each character has their own distinct speech pattern; a detail which she employs to flesh out supporting characters whose treatment could have felt tropey and cliched in the hands of a less confident writer.
Each character has their own distinct speech pattern; a detail which she employs to flesh out supporting characters whose treatment could have felt tropey and cliched in the hands of a less confident writer.
‘Children of the Quicksands’ may be billed as fantasy and magical realism, but the novel demonstrates that the traditional African worldview treats the supernatural as an extension of reality, and the author goes to great lengths to show that the Yoruba Ifásystemis not just a set of superstitious beliefs but a legitimate faith with its own logic. Of this, only a few may be persuaded because, as Joseph Campbell observed in his seminal work, ‘The Power of Myth’, the hard facts of one religion are likely to be dismissed as myths by another. However, myths offer universal messages, and in a time when there is increased antagonism between adherents of adopted Abrahamic faiths and those of African traditional religions, the novel’s subtle but emphatic stress on religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence is a timely message.
With other themes like familial relationships, reconciliation, and bravery, the novel covers a lot of moral ground and offers impressionable minds many valuable lessons. Much like an onion being peeled, ‘Children of the Quicksands’ guarantees the discovery of a new layer each time it’s reread.
GeekAfrique’s Writer of the Year: Nnedi Okorafor
Starting with a small handful of sci-fi and fantasy short stories and novellas, Nnedi Okorafor’s legend and bibliography have grown. With many successful books, the Nigerian-American writer’s work continues to attract readers to Africanfuturism, a fast-growing subgenre. And with a well-received foray into comic books for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and even IDW, she has cemented her place in the collective hearts of geekdom.
Spaceships, terrorist aliens, water spirits, soldiers, Boko Haram, and wet piles of meat. These aren’t part of a kind of dark poetry but are mainstays of some of Okorafor’s best work. Her work in Africanfuturism (one word, no space), speculative fiction, and fantasy work are among the most striking today.
Africanfuturism, which Okorafor coined, is an exciting subgenre that welds science fiction and technology to African mythologies, weaving black people —or blackness, really— into fertile worlds rife with story possibilities.
For past achievements and a stellar presence on bookshelves this year, Okorafor is GeekAfrique’s Writer of the Year.
In January 2022, Okorafor’s ‘Akata Woman’, the third novel in the Nsibidi Scripts Series was released and swiftly debuted on The New York Times Best Seller list. This installment continues a story that subverts tropes in a deep and thoughtful way while being fun and accessible. There’s a good number of her books out now, including the heartfelt YA ‘Ikenga’, the striking Africanfuturist ‘Remote Control’, the absolutely brilliant ‘Noor’, and a new hardcover collection of her Hugo and Eisner-winning LaGuardia graphic novel (Dark Horse) with constant collaborator Tana Ford. For past achievements and a stellar presence on bookshelves this year, Okorafor is GeekAfrique’s Writer of the Year.
In the past, Okorafor’s ‘Binti’ has won both the 2016 Nebula Award, and 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novella, while ‘Who Fears Death’, which won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, is being turned into a highly-anticipated HBO series, adapted by ‘Game Of Thrones’ writer George R.R Martin. She has a breath-taking oeuvre of work and is making a transition to TV pretty well, with several projects being developed at the same time.