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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: ‘Kintu’ by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

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A long, hard look at a novel quickly gaining a reputation for being a modern African classic.

By Akumbu Uche

I tend to approach books numbering over 300 pages with caution but after seeing ‘Kintu’ (2017, Transit Books) the debut novel from Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s debut novel lauded by critics and admirers, with some like Aaron Bady, who writes the introduction to this edition, even calling it the Great Ugandan Novel, I decided to push my trepidation aside and crack it open.

‘Kintu’ (pronounced Chintu) begins with the exploits of Kintu Kidda, an 18th century Ganda statesman, but quickly evolves into the story or stories of several of his descendants in 2004 as they grapple with a curse that has haunted their family for generations. 

Reading this novel, one can’t help but compare it to ‘Things Fall Apart,’ Chinua Achebe’s celebrated classic. The relationship between Kintu and his adopted son, Kalema almost duplicates the ill-fated bond between Okonkwo and Ikemefuna. Even the way the book traces Kintu’s lineage mirrors how Achebe moved on from Okonkwo to his grandson, Obi Okonkwo in the sequel, ‘No Longer at Ease.’

But Achebe’s influence is only one of many. Paying close attention, echoes of Elechi Amadi’s ‘The Concubine’ and Ben Okri’s ‘The Famished Road’ cannot be missed. Makumbi, a professor of English and Creative Writing, has studied a lot of early postcolonial Nigerian literature and it shows. But it could be said as well that she is drinking from the same river as these literary icons, after all there are so many cultural similarities between Nigeria and Uganda, and just about any other African country.

A life-long fan of trivia, I couldn’t help taking notes on the Ganda beliefs regarding twins (a shared fascination with Nigerians). There are special titles for parents of twins and children are often renamed after the birth of their younger twin siblings. Identical twin sisters once had to marry the same man and people with hunchbacks were believed to have eaten their twin in the womb. Very interesting. I usually try to avoid reading African novels like anthropological texts but given how much socio-cultural and historical information about us is either yet undocumented, or inaccessibly locked up in Western archives, such resistance is futile.

Reading how cumbersome Kintu finds being married to multiple wives and his frustration at attempting to fulfil his conjugal obligations to each, students of gender performance will find plenty to mull over. The world Kintu Kidda inhabits may be masculinist, but Makumbi is all too aware how men themselves are very often victimized by patriarchy. As she writes,

[Kintu] knew the snare of being a man. Society heaped such expectations on manhood that in a bid to live up to them some men snapped.

All the themes covered in this novel eventually lead to spirituality and its importance to human existence. If you don’t believe in the metaphysical, you will find your assumptions challenged after reading this novel. In the otherworldly realm Makumbi provides glimpses of, there is little room for agnosticism as one character, reluctant to embrace their spiritual calling, finds out a little too late.

From her treatment of the subject, one can deduce that Makumbi holds indigenous African religions in high regard and is tolerant of the more positive contributions Christianity and Islam have made to society – she herself is an alumna of the Islamic University in Uganda, and one of her characters praises her alma mater. Nevertheless, she casts a critical eye on a certain kind of hardline religious fervour, as illustrated by Kanani and his wife, Faisi, (Ganda appropriations of Canaan and Faith) who are members of the Awakened, a Christian sect assured that theirs is the only sanctioned path to Heaven, who among other oddities, evangelise by making up false, horrendous stories about sins they claim to have committed before their salvation yet Makumbi’s pen is never cruel to her characters. Where other writers might caricature, she rounds them and however baffling we may find this zealous couple, we come to empathise with their struggles.

The winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Makumbi’s dexterity with the short narrative form ensures that even the most minor of the multiple characters in this novel are nuanced and true to life.

The section involving Kintu Kidda is the strongest and I found myself wishing she had stayed with his storyline longer. One wonders what might have been had this novel been about him only. A different book for sure, but stronger or weaker for it? I can only hope that Makumbi returns her imagination to the 18th century or even earlier; I salivate at the thought of other fabulous tales she might unearth from that era but before then, I am going to reread this masterpiece of a novel, all 446 pages of it.

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

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A pun star cometh: A review of Sati Gomwalk’s ‘Garden of Thorns’

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A new collection of poetry shows the many ways in which words can be used or ‘abused’, resulting sometimes in the most intricately-woven work.

Title: Garden of Thorns

Author: Lengshak Sati Gomwalk

Genre: Poetry

Publisher: Ya-Byangs Press

Pages: 78

Reviewer: Bizuum Yadok

In Chinua Achebe’s ‘Arrow of God’, a story was told of a land dispute that arose between Umuaro and Okperi villages. When the debate about the ownership of the land started in Umuaro, members of the community decided on two options: to have a civil negotiation or engage in a war, and these two options were symbolized by chalk (for peace) and palm fronds (for war). To that end, a three-man committee spear-headed by Akukalia, an ill-tempered person, was sent to present the two options before the people of Okperi. As you may guess, if you haven’t read the text, upon arriving Okperi, Akukalia’s tactlessness quickly paved a way for a physical fight with an elder in Okperi and before anyone could come in-between them, gunpowder was fired into Akukalia’s chest.

Neither the chalk nor the palm frond was presented. Consequently, Akukalia’s death would later usher in a wave of reprisal killings in both Umuaro and Okperi until the white man intervened. Now, I brought this anecdote to suggest that a message is as good as its medium or the messenger because if Akukalia had been diplomatic, a peaceful negotiation would have ensued. How, then, does this relate to poetry? One may ask.

Poetry is not just a philosophical message but it is also the grandeur of the language in which the message is encapsulated. The message and the language/style can be broadly termed as ‘form’ and ‘content’. As to which of them is superior, a number of poets and critics have taken either the Aristotelian position or the Platonic position but I am of the opinion that the 1st Century Roman poet, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, otherwise known as Horace has since brought the argument to an end by suggesting that “poetry should delight and instruct” (dulce et utile).

Therefore, poetry doesn’t hold much water if it only instructs, or if it only delights, except if it does both. Think of it this way, would Fela Kuti’s afro-beat music stand the test of time if it was just the beats and nonsensical lyrics (message/theme)? What if the lyrics were not accompanied by the beats? Perhaps a more appropriate analogy lies in the plethora of poetry in the popular hymnal, Sacred Songs and Solos (SS & S). Pardon me because where you see hymns, I see poetry in both body and spirit; form and content. Do we still wonder why they have survived for hundreds of years and would likely outlive us?

Lengshak Sati Gomwalk’s poetry is not lacking in the use of the aforementioned ingredients of poetry. Not only that, he explores different forms of poetry from different generations and places of origin.

It is imperative to note that every poem has a form; the fact that it is composed in lines and stanzas already gives it a form. However, if all men are to wear black suits on white shirts and black ties, there will be little called style or even fashion. In this light, poetry expressed in different forms or modes doesn’t just add to its aesthetics but also its meaning, and ultimately, its value. At this point I should iterate that many Nigerian poets do not pay much attention to form in poetry; this phenomenon may be attributed to the immersion of the first generation of Nigerian poets into modernist poetry in the mould of Gerald Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound, and T.S Eliot, just to name a few.

More often than not, African poets forget that a good form makes poetry more memorable. Why do people, for instance, easily recollect verses in rap than Soyinka’s poetry? No offense meant, but most times form is the driver of memory. What lends weight to the form are the rhyme, rhythm, metric pattern, syllabic pattern, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeic depictions, and pun. Thus, Lengshak Sati Gomwalk’s poetry is not lacking in the use of the aforementioned ingredients of poetry. Not only that, he explores different forms of poetry from different generations and places of origin; poems like the tanka, the haiku, the sonnet, the acrostic, and different other artistic forms. To buttress these points, we shall look at just three poems from Garden of Thorns: ‘Dark Light’, ‘Adviser-in-Chief’, and ‘Waste of Minds’.

Dark light is not just recognized for its brevity or thought-provoking theme. It is also a special kind of poem which has its root in Japan and was later popularized by Europeans yet the form is still known as the haiku. Essentially, the haiku is a 3-lined poem with a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern. Thus, Gomwalk’s “Dark Light” reads:

TV, deceptive;

Gate to the free world of jail,

Light that veils the mind (P.2)

All that is needed in a haiku is found in the aforementioned poem. Not just that, the title is both oxymoronic and ironic at the same time. The TV here is used metonymically as a screen, which represents the television, computer screens, tablets, and phones. Take it or leave it, these screens now determine trends, culture, and mode of consumerism in our society today and since they are being controlled by capitalists, deception might just be a strategy of the so-called globalization.

Unconsciously, people surrender to the paradoxical “free world of jail”(Line 2). Resultantly, that knowledge or awareness that these screens claim to give somewhat blinds nations and that could be understood properly when we see how they are used as tools for dissemination of, especially Western, propaganda. The poet queries the light (knowledge, information, awareness) that the screen claims to supply and in a way, he cautions the hapless user to sift whatever information he stumbles upon in the media. Hardly does a brief poem gather weight this much.

From the same origin as the haiku is the tanka, although far less popular than the haiku. It is a poem of 5 lines and 31 syllables divided into a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern. A classic example of such a poem is found in Gomwalk’s “Adviser-in-Chief,” which reads:

Gyemat knew it all;

She was marriage counsellor.

Then she got married.

Truth took the throne; the cute cake

outlasted her own marriage! (P. 3)

The repetition of the word ‘marriage’ in this seemingly prosaic poem gives a hint that it is themed on marriage. However, every marriage is unique, just as every individual has his own fingerprint. Therefore, Gyemat, an Ngas word for an unmarried ‘lady’ – in this case a know-all (sabi-sabi) type – falls into the trap laid by her omniscience. While some lines in the poem are short, others are a bit longer, and while some are hastily terminated with a full stop, others have run-on lines (enjambment) and this testifies to the uniqueness of every marriage. Indeed, regardless of the formulas doled out by motivational speakers and, with all due respect, religious clerics, marriages that are fated to last will last anyway. The ones that will crash will still crash although a lot of hard work and patience is required to keep them intact. 

As a creative with a third eye, Gomwalk investigates the rot in that part of Jos through the long poem with three cantos

‘Waste of Minds’ is a pun, a play on words. Anybody who is familiar with the city of Jos would be familiar with its red-light district, ‘West of Mines’, originally known as Rotnorong.  That is one part of Jos that sleeps in the daytime but comes to life at night. It was more of a market designed by colonial lords, in the heydays of tin mining, for locals to spend their money on imported whiskeys, tobacco, and women.

The goal was to make whoever makes money in the mines to part with the money they make in the city thereby further impoverishing the people. As a creative with a third eye, Gomwalk investigates the rot in that part of Jos through the long poem with three cantos, which he titles, ‘Waste of Minds’. The poem has three different personas in the cantos: A villager cum drug dealer, an innocent girl turned into a prostitute and a crook who poses as a law enforcement officer. Each of the cantos has a rhyming pattern of abab, cdcd, efef, ghgh, ijij, which makes them delightful to the auditory system.  Stanza five of the first canto reads:

Brilliant minds gone gaga, waste of minds

He can’t whisper ‘be still, this waist of mine’

For there is sorrow in this wine, so he winds

Call it the Lost Man’s Paradise, this is West of Minds (P.27)

Take a look at his play on the phrase, ‘West of Mines’ without actually saying it. In line 20, he makes a perfectly fitting allusion to John Milton’s Paradise Lost and perhaps the wild wild West, or the occidental West, “Call it the Lost Man’s Paradise, this is West of Minds.”

The second canto has six stanzas and it somewhat runs in parallel with the fifth stanza of the first canto. Here, the author takes his reader to a harlot’s room in a brothel and the reader gets to hear as she takes pride in her portion of West of Mines.

This is her palace, the drunkard’s den: Waste of Minds

‘there is nothing wrong with this ways of mine’

‘I can do as I please, I can trade this waist of mine’

Christ is the answer in this harlot’s hades: West of Mines (P.28)

In the last line of the stanza, line 44, the poet exploits his poetic license to unabashedly inject his spiritual inclination to his poetry. But, hey, if taboo words are permissible why not the gospel? In any case, the poet doesn’t even judge the persona, instead, he sees a potential that is being wasted by objectifying herself as a commodity. Similarly, the eighth stanza of the third canto quite resembles the one discussed above.

She declares, ‘I can do as I please with this waist of mine’

He says, ‘do as I say, don’t copy these ways of mine’

This is the dungeon of filthy decay . . .waste of minds

Used to be the haven of miners . . . West of Mines

The way and manner Lengshak Gomalk seamlessly plays with words and de-familiarises them is what makes me christen him a ‘pun star’. He appears dexterous in his use of rhyme, rhythm, pun, and even alliteration. Consider the opening stanza of one of his highly alliterative poems, ‘Casting the Casket’:

Grating the grains, grating them gradually

Chopping, chirping, chomping, chewing . . .

Cutting the cute cedars, carving them into elegant cadavers

It always starts with a harmless harmonica, humming

The jackals howling . . .owl’s hooting  . . .

The shovels undress the subsoil to dress the comely casket

And now the post-mortem; a sojourn in futility

Pathetically, the rigor mortis is the start of life’s journey

Hypothetically, the requiem mass signals the gift of souls (P. 21)

Old English and medieval English poetry are typically characterised by a surplus of alliteration; an excerpt from the aforementioned poem gives us a glimpse of how deep the poet went to drink from the ‘Perian Spring’, a spring of knowledge. The entire collection of 66 poems is suffused with a variety of themes most of which were discussed in the preface to the text like drug abuse, prostitution, underage marriage, religious hypocrisy, war, love, optimism, and joy, among others.

The entire collection of 66 poems is suffused with a variety of themes most of which were discussed in the preface to the text like drug abuse, prostitution, underage marriage, religious hypocrisy, war, love, among others.

On a general note, the Gomwalk’s debut has something for everyone. The poems are rendered in concise language with a magnetic form. It is a work that will keep dragging the reader to itself even after the reader has finished reading it. A few typos could be picked but the combined effect of the beauty and the message blinds the casual reader to such inadequacies. With his collection, Lengshak Gomwalk has not just written his name in the register of poets, but also announced himself as a ‘pun star’.

Yadok is a teacher, poet, and novelist.

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Spine & Label to host ‘In Conversation with TJ Benson’ in Abuja

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For the newest instalment of their ‘In Conversation’ series, one of Abuja’s biggest book retailers is hosting award-winning author TJ Benson.

By Justina Terhember

Spine & Label Bookstore recently revealed the next writer to be featured for their ‘In Conversation’ series to be TJ Benson, author of the current hit ‘People Who Live Here’, and ‘The Madhouse’ (both from Masobe Books). He will read from the book, and talk about a variety of topics with the host, editor/writer/illustrator Abdulkareem Baba Aminu.

Benson will also answer questions from fans, as well as sign copies of his book, which will be on sale at the venue, Spine & Label Bookstore, Rhema Mall (opposite NAF Conference Centre, Kado). The event is starting tomorrow, August 27th 2022 at 4:00 pm. The bookstore, via its Instagram handle, announced that per tradition, the first 10 guests will get “an exciting gift”.

On the event, Benson said: “I love Spine & Label bookstore and what they do, and I’m looking forward to seeing and interacting with readers old and new.”

“TJ [Benson] is an incredibly gifted writer, and a personal favourite of mine, so hosting him will be quite a lot of fun. Guests should be ready for a compelling 2 hours,” Baba Aminu, the host, said.

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