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#AkumbuReviews: ‘In the Palace of Flowers’, by Victoria Princewill



Our reviewer returns after a brief pause, and hits the floor running with a close, incisive look at an incredibly important book.

By Akumbu Uche

Many African slave narratives, biographical and fictional, tend to focus on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery in the Americas. Underrepresented in that genre are accounts of the Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave routes and what happened to those unfortunate Africans who were sold into bondage in the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Far East.

One of several writers working to redress this imbalance is Victoria Princewill, whose historical novel, In the Palace of Flowers (Cassava Republic, 2021), tells the story of two Ethiopian slaves in 1890s Iran.

Even though scholars estimate that of the one to two million African slaves were exported from East African ports to Iran via the Indian Ocean, historical records of slavery in Iran are scant. Evidence of enslavement can be found in nineteenth century Iranian photographs and is mentioned in the Baha’i holy texts yet biographical narratives of the event are so rare that a 1905 letter penned by Jamila Habashi is the only existing self-documented, first-person account of an African slave in Iran. Documented in Behnaz Mirzai’s 2017 seminal text, ‘A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran, 1800-1929’, and reproduced in the novel, Habashi’s 158-word mini autobiography summarizes her ancestry and how she was sold off multiple times and transported to various cities in what would be present-day Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, as she was passed from one owner to another before settling down in Shiraz with her latest owner.

An estimated two-thirds of African slaves were women who ended up as domestic servants and concubines. Ditto for both the real and novelized Jamilas. However, in fictionalising her life, Princewill transposes Jamila from Shiraz to Tehran, placing her in the harem at Golestan Palace. The time setting coincides with the decline of the Qajar dynastic era, and increasing British interference in the country; a choice that affords the author the opportunity to kill a few commentarial birds with one stone.

When we are introduced to Jamila at the beginning of the novel, she is going through an existential crisis. Having long acclimatised to her life as a lady’s maid to a harem wife and royal concubine to a prince, she is jolted out of her torpor when she realises that no matter how essential a slave’s services are, they are fundamentally undervalued. This road to Damascus moment awakens in her a desire to be more than a palace wallflower and her fear of leading an inconsequential existence drives her to insert herself into risky political intrigues.

Even though court life encourages little more than transactional relationships, Jamila manages to develop a friendship with Abimelech, a eunuch and fellow Habashi – Iranian slaves tended to take on toponyms that reflected their approximate ethnic origins – who serves as tutor to the spoiled and selfish Prince Nosrat. Abimelech’s smarts and eloquence win him favour with Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, and he begins to entertain hopes of eventual freedom and possible financial remuneration. Just as his trajectory begins to mirror that of Ya’qub Sultan who rose from slavery to governor of Bandar Abbas in 1717, the Shah falls ill and Abimelech finds himself reduced to a piyadeh or pawn as the monarch’s sons and palace courtiers vie for the not-yet vacant throne; a sobering reminder that no matter how intelligent, well-connected or highly-positioned, a slave’s life is inherently precarious.

This reader regrets that a few characters like the artistically-inclined Prince Nosrat and the savvy, social-climbing Sanaa were not given more scenes but the author makes up for this limitation with lush descriptions that make the resplendence of the palace come to life. It is worth noting that in her prose, as in reality, beauty coexists with brutism. Her depiction of the physical and sexual violence both Jamila and Abimelech are subjected to despite their relative privilege as high-ranking slaves is rooted in fact and challenges the assumption that slavery in the Persian Gulf was benign. In addition, she spotlights the elliptic origins of Afro-Iranians and makes a compelling argument for the recognition of their community’s contribution to Iranian nationalism.

Like Thomas Mofolo with Chaka, Margaret Atwood with Alias Grace, or Hilary Mantel with her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Princewill excels at invigorating public interest in history without inundating the reader with trivia. Equally impressive is how well she has succeeded in painting an intensely chromatic portrait from a limited palette. I expect and look forward to more interpretations and reconstructions of historical narratives from this new author. Akumbu Uche is a Nigerian writer. Her work has appeared in Bella Naija, Brittle Paper, and Engaging Borders Africa. She lives in Owerri.


Four of Nnedi Okorafor’s books are finalists for Locus Awards



As the awards and nominations keep piling up for fan-favorite writer Nnedi Okorafor, four of her books have been announced as finalists for the prestigious Locus Awards’ 2022 edition.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

The Locus Science Fiction Foundation has announced the top ten finalists for this year’s Locus Awards, and the final winners will be announced on June 25, during the virtual Locus Award Weekend. Four books by Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor are on the list. Her books on the list of finalists are Noor (DAW) for Best Science Fiction Novel, Remote Control (Tordotcom) for Best Novella, The Black Pages (Black Stars) for Best Novelette, and the graphic novel adaptation of After the Rain (Abrams ComicArts/Megascope) by John Jennings, with art by David Brame.

Okorafor is a leading writer of science fiction and fantasy with a breath-taking body of work spanning close to two decades. She is also known for coining the term ‘Africanfuturism’ and defining the subgenre itself.

Okorafor is a leading writer of science fiction and fantasy with a breath-taking body of work spanning close to two decades. She is also known for coining the term ‘Africanfuturism’ and defining the subgenre itself. An unapologetic champion of diversity, inclusion, and originality in SFF, her works are often praised for inventiveness and innovation.  

Over the years, Okorafor has won some of the most prestigious awards, including three Hugo nominations, one for each of the books in her well-received and critically-acclaimed acclaimed Binti trilogy, which the first book won in 2016. She has also won a Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, three Nebula Awards, as well as an Eisner Award and Hugo win (with artist Tana Ford) for the LaGuardia graphic novel, among several others.

Founded in 1971, the Locus Awards are conferred by the Locus Science Fiction Foundation. The 2020 awards are spread across 16 categories, with winners determined by polling magazine readers.

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Poems about gagged lips and lone voices: A review of Peace Longdet’s ‘Enablers’



A look at the new poetry collection ‘The Enablers’ reveals a work that is at once layered in a most subtle way, as well as powerfully effective.

Title: The Enablers | Author: Peace Longdet

Genre: Poetry | Pages: 67

Publisher: Sevhage Publishers | Year of Publication: 2022

Reviewer: Bizuum Yadok

Every poet has a responsibility to communicate feelings, experiences, fears, aspirations, values and dissatisfaction on behalf of herself or her society. This form of communication is usually aimed at either creating awareness or igniting a radical solution. Whichever way, while at it, the poet always entertains and extracts emotion from her audience. Many scholars agree that the bulk of African literature, from colonial times (and especially in writing), is essentially a response to wide-spread tragedy, and as such it is usually characterised by protest; protest against colonialism, protest against the megalomaniacal claims of independence, protest against military juntas, protest against mammoth corruption colouring democracy, and protest against terrorism or other forms of man’s inhumanity to man.

Dr. Peace Longdet is ushered into the league of protest poets by her significant debut collection of poems, Enablers. Her poems are not just relevant but timely in a presently deteriorating society like Nigeria where dissenting voices are gagged, if not silenced permanently. It has reached a point whereby any person criticising the lackadaisical attitude of the government, especially with regards to insecurity, nepotism, and corruption, is hastily termed as a saboteur. Freedom of expression has now become a mere rhetoric and quite far from practice. However, poets like Peace Longdet have refused to be hushed. If their voices will not be heard, then their agitation will find expression in print. Her Enablers comes as a worthy example of artists’ weapons that are meant to cure societal ills while confronting social injustice at the same time.

The first poem in the collection, “Thoughts in Print”, aptly welcomes the reader to a potpourri of thematic concerns mostly tilted towards protest against ineptitude of leaders and collaboration of followers marked by complicitous participation, herd silence and ignorance. The 9-lined poem reads:

Treading, yet knowing

The ground is unholy,

Giving, yet knowing

The gift is abominable,

Taking, yet knowing,

The gift is temporal

Dreaming, yet knowing

The morning breaks

At Last!

Nearly all who conspire to create an ailing society are present in the poem above. Ironically, they are in the full knowledge of their contributions whether by treading on unholy grounds, giving abominable gifts (e.g bribes) or taking fleeting gifts. In any of the cases, they are always in the state of “knowing”. It is rather absurd that the same set of people are dreaming – perhaps for a better place – yet still “knowing” that “morning breaks” when their secret acts come to light and the end result is an anarchical society. The poet’s projection of effect, from the cause, using the principle of economy, is nicely captured in the brief poem which lays a good foundation for string of angry poems such as, “Gagged”, “Hallowed Gong”, “Terror”, “Few”, “Killings”, “Blessed Yet . . .” among others.

In some of the poems, the poet doesn’t just expose injustices but also firmly resolves to meet her obligation as a person. For example, the poem, ‘My Pledge’ offers a more radical, even militant, perception of herself in the sense that she uses the ‘Tigress’ as metaphor for her self-concept. She reiterates, “I am a tigress” in lines 1, 12, and 18 to assert her manner of confronting any factor that seeks to subjugate women, using the weapons of her physical, mental and emotional strength represented by claws, teeth and speed of the tigress. Consider the first six lines of the poem:

I am a tigress

Armed to breathe with my claws

My claws the pen

To speak with my pen

To drum with my claws

The rhythms are coals of fire

Pouncing in the direction of the hunter

A tigress has been proven to be more vicious than the tiger. From Longdet’s description though, we do not see the poet as a wild animal but a mentally armed and ready-to-fight phenomenal woman. Thus, she shifts from the semblance of the prey to become the predator. At this point, it doesn’t matter who the hunter (enemy) is, but that tigress is willing to launch an attack to protect her cubs (hapless women and children) as seen in lines 8 & 11, ‘The cubs depend on my razor-sharp teeth/ . . .For the cubs must know the myth of the hunter.’ She restates her point in lines 18-20 with her emphasis on attack as a form of activism which is quite necessary in a jungle-like nation:

I am a tigress

My passion is my weapon

To speak up in the land of the dumb.

A similar conviction like that of the above can gleaned in lines 17-21 of the poem, “Wandering Loner”, where she says:

This fire must burn!

It is a quest like an enchanted Diva,

Prowling with the words of fire

To wake them from sleep

To give them a voice

The reoccurrence of the word “fire” in this poem, just like in her other poems, connotes the fury or righteous anger that the poet is filled with and it is employed in the pursuit of justice. She doesn’t just create awareness but lends her voice to the voiceless so that more voices of protest could be heard. In the same vein, the poet makes loud her commitment to positive change in lines 21-30 of the poem, “The Voice”, by saying:

I do not possess the power to stop the carnage but

I will stand high on this space;

To utter

To oppose

To shout

To protect

To heal

To reawaken

All that I am and all that I can

There is an inexhaustible list of the violent killings across Nigeria prior to and especially during the tenure of President Buhari, who had earlier promised to put a stop to all kinds of terrorism orchestrated by Boko Haram, Fulani Militia also known as bandits, and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). He fails woefully in tackling terror and almost all other arms of government combined are reluctant to point accusatory fingers at him. However, Peace Longdet bravely holds the government by the balls, reminding it of its fake promises in poems like, “Deceit”, “Haribu”, “Sleeping Shepherd”, “Double Standard”, and “Quest”. Her fearless confrontation of the powers that be are not even encrypted in the poetics of modernists, rather it is concise and readily accessible to every reader. In this regard, I concur with the literary critic, Paul Liam, in his statement that, “Longdet is a poet for every reader.”

It would be unfair to state that Longdet’s collection is all about protest as some poems are private and they depict supposedly personal or second-hand experiences. Poems like, “Memories”, “Unleased”, “Son of the Wind”, “You Drank”, “Entagled Wind”, and “The Vow”. This collection of 57 poems offer a variety of societal topics in dire need of an elaborate discourse and sometimes follow-up action. The poet pays little attention to sound devices but the optimal imagery makes up for the spice the sound devices might have rendered. Most of the poems are short and captivating as though the words were calculated before each poem was composed.

Like Lebanon’s Khalil Gibran, Nigeria’s Niyi Osundare, or South Africa’s Oswald Mtshali, posterity will keep making reference to Peace Longdet as a phenomenal poet who supplied her intellectual arsenal to fight against all forms of oppression and injustice. Enablers is a book of poetry that will require very little effort of salesmen because it will sell itself by the quality design, print and content therein.

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#7Questions: How I settled on Africanfuturism – TJ Benson



TJ Benson’s first book, a collection of short speculative fiction called ‘We Won’t Fade Into Darkness’ (Parresia, 2018), crept into readers’ heads about four years ago. Since then he’s had a second book published, with a third one on the way. Here, the writer/artist/photographer answers seven questions in the way only he can.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

Your first book, the novella ‘We Won’t Fade Into Darkness’ divided readers, causing many to try and force a label on it. How would you describe it?

TJ Benson: I started writing the stories with the intent of making an African sci-fi world, but when I was done I realized I had created something different from that. My characters used indigenous technology, which is regarded as witchcraft today. They also mostly never leave the continent. I didn’t have words for it until I came across the term ‘Africanfuturism’ coined by the celebrated writer, Nnedi Okorafor, and had an ‘aha!’ moment. So, Africanfuturism.

“I didn’t have words for it until I came across the term ‘Africanfuturism’ coined by the celebrated writer, Nnedi Okorafor, and had an ‘aha!’ moment.”

Your sophomore effort, ‘The Madhouse’ (Masobe, 2021), is causing similar reactions over genre. Where would you place it?

TJ Benson: I fought against the category ‘Magical Realism’ right up to the month of publication, because I felt the supernatural governs the lives of many people who share a country with the characters. Yet the spiritualistic elements in the book weren’t of any specific culture which would have made it African Spirituality, like Ben Okri’s ‘The Famished Road’, so ‘The Madhouse’ is definitely Magical Realism.

What can you dish to us about your upcoming novel ‘People Live Here’?

TJ Benson: Not a lot, I’m afraid. It’s a much smaller novel than ‘The Madhouse’, and more linear in structure, even if I admit it has a lot of twisty turns. It’s me, after all (laughter). All I can tell you is that I’m really excited for it to come out.

You’re also a visual artist, as well as a photographer. How do you approach that aspect of your creativity, and does it feed into your writing work?

TJ Benson: There was no intersection between the mediums I practiced until the global lockdown of 2020 when I lost all language. I started drawing on my photographs and realized I draw from the same well in my spirit that I write from. One pulls the other. Pure photography on the other hand is like speaking an entirely different language for me.

“There was no intersection between the mediums I practiced until the global lockdown of 2020 when I lost all language. I started drawing on my photographs and realized I draw from the same well in my spirit that I write from.”

While it’s too early, what’s your next project, after ‘People Live Here’?

TJ Benson: Another short story collection with a little bit of magic, and a little bit of science fiction. That’s all I can share for now.

At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

TJ Benson: To be honest, I decide every year. But the earliest was when I showed an aunt a novella I had handwritten when I was eleven and she told me to make sure I kept the exercise book safe.

What are you reading – and enjoying – these days?

TJ Benson: Unpublished manuscripts (laughter).

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