#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.
#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.