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#AkumbuReviews: ‘Home Is Not a Country’, by Safia Elhillo

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A deep, incisive look at an instant classic from 2021 asks questions about the origins of a genre that is currently enjoying a fast rise among younger readers.

By Akumbu Uche

Verse novels are hardly a new phenomenon but they seem to be having a moment in contemporary Young Adult literature. Perhaps the popularity of narrative poetry has to do with adolescence being the stage of development when young people are most self-conscious, and eager to self-actualise, they begin to experiment with poetry and journaling.

With ‘Home is not a Country’ (Make Me a World, 2021), the Sudanese-American poet and spoken word artist Safia Elhillo joins authors like Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X), Kwame Alexander (The Crossover series), and Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming) who use the medium to portray black teenage experiences and in so doing, reflect teenagers to themselves.

Welding prose to poetry, Elhillo’s novel, set in 2001, is narrated by Nima, a 14-year-old Sudanese-American Muslim girl. Coming of age in the wake of the September 11 tragedy means living in an America where Islamophobia is overt and socially acceptable. Growing up is never easy but Nima appears to be having a rougher time of it than most of her peers. Not only does she have to deal with the ambiguity of adolescence and the emotional harm she suffers from the school bullies who taunt her with “terrorist”, growing up with one foot in Africa and the other in America leaves her feeling like she is on shaky ground. Her angst echoes Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s oft-quoted poem, Diaspora blues:

So, here you are

too foreign for home

too foreign for here.

never enough for both.

Nima’s sense of displacement manifests itself linguistically. Ostensibly bilingual, she struggles with language – her American English is Sudanese-inflected while her Arabic is halting at best. Even though her family regularly consumes Arabic media at home, she finds it difficult to keep up.

i can’t follow the story & feel/how clumsy my arabic is/i start/& falter & start again

In sociolinguistics, this cultural quagmire is often referred to as the third space. It is a concept the author is clearly familiar with as she teaches a ‘Poetry of the Third Space’ course at Stanford. One gets the sense that although the novel is not autobiographical, the author has definitely drawn from the well of personal experience. Born in the United States to Sudanese parents in 1990, Elhillo’s early childhood was spent in several European and African countries, after which she returned to the US at the age of 10. This diasporic upbringing has resulted in her exploring identity and migration in her work.

As a coping mechanism, Nima retreats into her thoughts and toys with the possibilities of what might have been had she been raised in Sudan as Yasmeen, the name her parents originally intended for her. 

The pervasive mood in the text is nostalgia. Nima obsessively yearns for a past she can only access through the sepia-coloured photographs of her parents’ youth and old-school khaliji music preserved on cassette tapes.

There are sprinklings of folk horror too like when Yasmeen, her alter ego ceases to be a figment of her imagination and becomes flesh. 

i retreat into my head/&/remember mama fatheya’s warnings about the spirit world at twilight/stories/of children trapped on the other side/but the girl/before me can’t be a jinni/

she’s me/maybe she’s/ my sister/a twin i never knew

Could this be a paranormal phenomenon, magical realism, or a Jungian exploration of the shadow self? Your guess is as good as mine.

Elhillo makes some interesting stylistic choices; she forgoes full stops and commas in favour of a blank space caesura. Her atypical punctuation and use of lowercase letters throughout the text, reminiscent of E.E. Cummings’s rejection of poetic convention, is as inviting to the eye as it is insightful into young Nima’s emotional state.

It takes a lot of skill to write from a child-like perspective without devolving to writing in a childish manner, and Elhillo excels in this regard. It is very easy to see why the author of The January Children (2017) and the forthcoming Girls That Never Die (2022) has been lauded with multiple awards from the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize to Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner fellowship, and one suspects there will be more accolades in her future.

There is plenty here in Safia Elhillo’s sophomore outing to comfort and challenge book-loving teenagers, and it is an equally perfect read for adults.

Akumbu Uche is a Nigerian writer whose work has appeared in Bella Naija, Brittle Paper, Nowhere Magazine, and Open Letters Review. She lives in Owerri.

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#AkumbuReviews: ‘The Old Drift’, by Namwali Serpell

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An epic Zambian saga comes under scrutiny from our reviewer. Hard-hitting classic, or all huff and puff with no bite?

By Akumbu Uche

‘The Old Drift’ (Vintage, 2019) is an epic. Nearing 600 pages, Namwali Serpell’s debut novel is a multigenerational and multiracial Zambian saga that spans the years between 1903 and a very futuristic 2023. A novel in stories, the book’s structure is doubly tripartite. Every one of its three sections is further subdivided into three chapters, each following a different character over a period of time and this gives the book a polyphonic effect. Readers familiar with Serpell’s earlier, shorter fiction will likely recognize some of these chapters as the previously published short stories ‘Muzungu,’ and ‘The Man with the Hole in His Face.’

There is a good reason why the novel has been translated into Italian as Capelli, lacrime e zanzare – Hair, tears and mosquitoes. These things hold heavy significance in the book. The mosquitoes especially, as the author has cast a scourge of them in the role of Greek chorus and employed them as occasional narrators. The novel’s original title is a double reference to the Zambezi River, and the autobiography of Percy M. Clark, a self-proclaimed old drifter, who was one of the earliest European settlers in Northern Rhodesia, as Zambia was called at the time.

‘The Old Drift’ is intricately plotted and packed with commentary on multiple topics such as colonialism, race, gender, colourism, disability, sexuality, cultural clashes, genetics, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and Marxism among others, but where it shines most is its examination of history. 

‘The Old Drift’ is intricately plotted and packed with commentary on multiple topics such as colonialism, race, gender, colourism, disability, sexuality, cultural clashes, genetics, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and Marxism among others, but where it shines most is its examination of history. 

It is no accident that the novel begins with the depiction of the exploration and exploitation of African lands that characterised the continent’s colonial past. This is a book that is very much interested in interrogating the politics that shape historiography. One example is a character who comes to the realisation that “‘history’ was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.” In reviewing how the country’s history has been framed, key historical figures like Kenneth Kaunda and Stewart Gore Browne are portrayed, and epochal events such as David Livingstone’s ill-fated search for the source of the Nile, the head-scratching Zambian Space Programme, the construction of the Kariba Dam, and even the Rhodes Must Fall protest movement in nearby South Africa are explored.

‘The Old Drift’ may start off as historical fiction, but magical realism, social realism and Afrofuturism all vie for space in this hodgepodge of genres. It could even qualify as fan fiction as eagle-eyed readers will be reminded of certain characters and circumstances in Zadie Smith’s 2000 debut ‘White Teeth.’ Despite the influence and shared penchant for literary risk-taking, Serpell’s florid style is distinctively hers and her electric prose is attention-grabbing.

Serpell’s strongest characters are the ‘Grandmothers.’ Sibilla, who spends most of her time hidden from sight due to an extreme case of hirsutism, starts out her life in Fascist Italy before moving to Zambia with her engineer husband; Agnes, is a posh English rose who loses her sight, but her disability gives her the ability to see beyond colour, and she eventually embarks on a forbidden interracial relationship; Matha is a child prodigy whose potential is squandered. After experiencing heartbreak, she cries uncontrollably for the rest of her life. These three women make up the backbone of the narrative and although they are ethnically and socioeconomically dissimilar, their lives hold a lot of parallels. Over the years, the paths of their descendants will intersect to the point where their grandchildren – Naila, Joseph, and Jacob – will form an inseparable trio.

Unfortunately, the novel tries to accomplish too many things at once and staggers under the weight of the author’s ambition. The decision to shift gear into a dystopian Afrofuturism overloads the system and plot holes begin to emerge.  

Paradoxically, the more interconnected the stories become, the less cohesive the novel stays. The transposition from the various realisms to the speculative doesn’t help much either. Unfortunately, the novel tries to accomplish too many things at once and staggers under the weight of the author’s ambition. The decision to shift gear into a dystopian Afrofuturism overloads the system and plot holes begin to emerge.   

One glaring plot hole is where a woman with two lovers conceives and is unable to identify the father of her child. This seems to be patterned from Zadie Smith’s prototype but given the fact the men in Serpell’s tale are not twins, and how scientifically advanced the setting of this part of the novel is, such an error goes against the logic of the world the author has created and is painful to read. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much better after that, and as the book nears completion, what was once a roaring river trickles to an unsatisfying end.

Akumbu Uche is a Nigerian writer whose work has appeared in Bella Naija, Brittle Paper, Nowhere Magazine, and Open Letters Review. She lives in Owerri.

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Africanfuturista! The fantastical adventures of Nnedi Okorafor

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Starting out with a small handful of sci-fi and fantasy short stories and novellas, Nnedi Okorafor’s legend – and bibliography – has grown. With a good number of successful books, the Nigerian-American writer’s work continues to attract readers to Africanfuturism, a fast-growing genre. 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.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

Spaceships, terrorist aliens, water spirits, soldiers, Boko Haram, and wet piles of meat. These aren’t part of a kind of dark poetry, but mainstays of some of the best work of writer Nnedi Okorafor. Her work in her genre of choice Africanfuturism (one word, no space), her speculative fiction and fantasy work, are among the most unique 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.

Back to Okorafor, she was 19 when she began to write stories, from a hospital bed, paralyzed from spinal surgery complications. She never stopped, getting published for the first time in 1999, a short story called ‘Uche’ for an international women’s online journal whose name she forgets. But she remembers that “It was cool.” Now 48, she says: “I don’t write to get published, I write because I like writing, so it felt right.”

“I don’t write to get published, I write because I like writing, so it felt right.”

When asked what early influences might have nudged her towards sci-fi and fantasy, Okorafor recalled moments in Nigeria where she noticed the coexistence of traditional ways and technology. “I realized that I wasn’t seeing this side of Africa as a whole in the stories I was reading, or the books I was seeing published,” she says.  

Okorafor has a number of times cited Nigeria as her muse, and she says that’s because she is Nigerian, and identifies with that. “That’s how it works,” she adds, “My parents have been taking my siblings and me there since we were very young.” On those trips, they would first stay in Lagos, which is very urban, then for the second part of the trip, off they’d go to her parents’ villages in the South-East.

Okorafor describes those trips as ‘epic’. “For all of us, in wonderful and terrible and magical ways. They got under my skin. When I wrote my very first piece of fiction, it was no surprise that it was set in Nigeria. Whenever I visit, I naturally inhale stories.”

“When I wrote my very first piece of fiction, it was no surprise that it was set in Nigeria. Whenever I visit, I naturally inhale stories.”

Okorafor tweeted in August 2017, that publisher Marvel’s anthology comic book, ‘VenomVerse: War Stories’, would feature an 8-page story she’s written. The internet, as it tends to often do, broke in two, but with excitement. Drawn by Tana Ford (with whom Okorafor would later collaborate on the Eisner-winning ‘LaGuardia’ at Dark Horse), the story featured Black Panther, The Rhino, and Venom, and it also introduced a Nigerian character – one of few at the big publisher – called Ngozi. In the short tale, she served a deft, future shock-style twist ending which left readers wanting more.

Marvel heeded, handing their main black character to her to write, in a digital-only series titled ‘Black Panther: Long Live The King’ that was a hit with readers and critics alike. Drawn by André Lima Araújo, whose gorgeous line work helped weave Okorafor’s world-building words out in a sprawling, visual feast that’s fit for royalty, it was followed by ‘Wakanda Forever’, a miniseries that saw her play in a full Marvel sandbox, writing stories involving the publisher’s most iconic characters like Spider-Man, the X-Men, and many others.

Marvel heeded, handing their main black character to her to write, in a digital-only series titled ‘Black Panther: Long Live The King’ that was a hit with readers and critics alike.

But hold up: the Wakandan king’s book isn’t Okorafor’s first comic book rodeo. “That was in 2012, for DC/Vertigo, for an anthology called ‘Mystery in Space’. My story was called ‘The Elgort’, illustrated by Michael Kaluta,” she says. The ‘VenomVerse: War Stories’ tale happened when Marvel asked her to write Black Panther. “After two weeks of thought, I said ‘Yes!’ We’d discussed me writing some other character before this, but Black Panther was the one I felt I could do the most justice to,” she tells me. For research, Okorafor jumped into the stories written by writers Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Roxanne Gay, as well as some of the very first Black Panther comics (about which she said ‘Heh, those were interesting.’)

Okorafor also ended up having to research quantum physics and biotech, and she took a closer look at the fictional metal vibranium, as well as the properties of meteors. “It was a lot,” she said. The research paid off, making ‘Long Live the King’ read very believably, even at its most fantastical.

The writer has been reading comics since she was a child. “I read them mainly in the newspaper, and was so obsessed with them that I would collect pages and pages,” she says. “As a kid, it was more the medium of it, the shape of lines, the containment of text, the narrative relationship between text and image. I’d stare and stare at the pages and I couldn’t quite understand why. I stared at Garfield for so long once, maybe for over two hours, that to this day I can still draw his face perfectly.”

The writer has been reading comics since she was a child. “I read them mainly in the newspaper, and was so obsessed with them that I would collect pages and pages.”

It is quite possible that her fondness for Garfield sparked a love the writer has for felines. She currently has two striking cats called Periwinkle Chukwu (soon to be the star of his own graphic novel called ‘Space Cat’, written by Okorafor and drawn by Ford) and Neptune Onyedike, both of them with quite the social media presence. So it’s no surprise that one of her three favourite comic books include the pet-centric ‘We3’ (“Grant Morrison is my favorite comics writer,” she says), which she also confesses is the first comic to make her cry. Okorafor’s other faves include ‘Wonder Woman’ (“Gail Simone’s run portrayed the unapologetic Wonder Woman I’ve always wanted to see”), and ‘Y: The Last Man’ (“Brian K. Vaughn’s work there is excellent storytelling”).

With a well-received, if inevitable, return to writing comic books, and with Black Panther under her belt, Okorafor was asked which other Marvel or DC characters she would like to tackle. “Vixen. Maybe Storm,” she says.  

It is quite possible that her fondness for Garfield sparked a love the writer has for felines. She currently has two striking cats called Periwinkle Chukwu (soon to be the star of his own graphic novel called ‘Space Cat’, written by Okorafor and drawn by Ford) and Neptune Onyedike, both of them with quite the social media presence.

Okorafor finds writing comic books very different from writing novels. “Comics are a visual medium, and I have to come at them in this way. The first phase of scripting for me is by hand, and sometimes I even sketch the individual panels. At the same time, when I write prose, I’m also very visual, so moving back and forth between the mediums isn’t as jarring as it might be for other novelists. And dealing with the visual medium of film has also helped me. I feel like I’m becoming fluent in multiple languages from various language families.”

Back again to her own creations, Okorafor’s ‘Binti’ 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.

Okorafor finds writing comic books very different from writing novels. “Comics are a visual medium, and I have to come at them in this way.”

Okorafor 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. There’s a good number of her books out now, including the heartfelt YA ‘Ikenga’, the striking Africanfuturist ‘Remote Control’, and the absolutely brilliant ‘Noor’, a welcome return to adult sci-fi (yay!). And any true fan knows there will be more out any minute from now. That, however, is when it comes to books. But does Okorafor like writing comic books enough to stay? “Yes,” she answered. And the resounding cheers of her legion of fans could be heard around geekdom, mine included.

A version of this article was first published in Full Bleed Vol. 2 (IDW Publishing), in 2018. It has been updated to include recent information and perspectives.

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#BookChaser: Rosenberg foretells the Russia-Ukraine conflict like a prophet 

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I spotted the cover in a bookstore and, I instantly knew I had to read it. If you want to see the Russia-Ukraine war in a fictitious, yet near prophetic light, you should read it too.

By Nathaniel Bivan

I sit at the edge of my seat and listen (yes, listen) to two men who should, in reality, be enemies, converse secretly in a Moscow hotel. They are talking about ‘The Godfather’, a novel written by Mario Puzo and which was later adapted into a three-part movie (one of my all-time favourites) I have watched more than once – the second time, I don’t recall moving an inch until I was done wolfing down all three. That was how much I valued the movie and its characters. And yes…I still do.

So, here I am reading a book by Joel C. Rosenberg titled ‘The Kremlin Conspiracy’, and I am blown away by a particular dialogue – Marcus Ryker, an ex-US secret agent, whose last job in the service was protecting the president, was in the same room with Oleg Kraskin, the Russian president’s most trusted adviser and also (wait for this) his only son-in-law. It’s Sept. 25 2017 and Russia is planning a surprise war against its neighbours that will tip the scale of its political, economic, and even nuclear power beyond the world’s imagination, leaving NATO and the US in shock.

‘I remember how I happened upon Rosenberg’s ‘The Kremlin Conspiracy’. I wasn’t looking for it. I was in a bookstore and a carton of fresh deliveries just came in and sat at the feet of the bookseller. That was when I spotted the title, then quickly checked it out and realized it was timely. I mean, published in 2018, and here we are in 2022, the year Russia invades Ukraine.’

But, for now, this is all theory, detailed in a top-secret war plan. This is what makes me tense as Oleg and Markus finally meet.

Oleg has turned into a snitch, against his president and father-in-law. Against mother Russia! But there’s a good reason, apparently, or so he thinks. And so, he’s here to tell it all to the one man he respects the most, by reputation, in the entire United States of America. And, somehow, there’s a trend in their discussion that leads Oleg to try and explain the kind of man his president and father-in-law is:

Another Stalin? Markus asks.

No.

A Hitler then?

It’s another no from Oleg and then he says the words that will make me remember this book always.

“I believe the best way to think of him is as the head of a crime family.”

“Like the Godfather?” Markus asked. “You’re saying he’s Vito Corleone?”

“I’m saying he’s Sunny,” Oleg replied coldly. “Ambitious but rash, reckless – and he has a nuclear arsenal, and the willingness to use it.”

I remember how I happened upon Rosenberg’s ‘The Kremlin Conspiracy’. I wasn’t looking for it. I was in a bookstore and a carton of fresh deliveries just came in and sat at the feet of the bookseller. That was when I spotted the title, then quickly checked it out and realized it was timely. I mean, published in 2018, and here we are in 2022, the year Russia invades Ukraine in a war its president, Putin, seemed to have thought would be a walk in the park, wrapped up maybe in a matter of weeks. 

Anyway, so long story short, I buy it and dig in with excitement. And there’s a page that amazes me, when Russia, in the guise of conducting an exercise, intimidates Ukraine by amassing troops and tankers and whatnot at its borders, prompts the Ukraine president to open up to a US senator on a visit. He sends the senator back with a message – to remind the US president that they, US and NATO, encouraged Ukraine, in what’s historically known as the Budapest Memorandum, to relinquish its nuclear arsenal, the world’s third-largest, inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union, and transfer all nuclear warheads to Russia for decommissioning.

‘I mean, it took this book to remind me that you can be advised, even pressured, to make a decision as a country and yet become an island when you’re under attack. Or when it backfires!’

I mean, it took this book to remind me that you can be advised, even pressured, to make a decision as a country and yet become an island when you’re under attack. Or when it backfires!

But just like what’s happening today, where the superpowers only watch from a distance and condemn Russia’s invasion of a weaker nation, so it is in Rosenberg’s 2018 offering.

I feel like I have already revealed too much about this novel, but…on second thought, my gist hasn’t scraped a fraction of what’s in store for readers. You will meet Luganov, a president that some may liken to today’s Putin, and then a ‘slow’ American president in the character Clark that you may liken to this day’s Biden. Then there’s, of course, the adventurous Marcus Ryker who will dare to save the day, and Oleg, the somewhat timid son-in-law turned powerful Russian government official and what I’ll dare to coin as a traitor-hero.   

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