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#RetroReview: When Waid and Jones fed us strange but fresh fruit

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Things went Boom! as far back as 2015 when the publisher teamed up with Mark Waid and J.G Jones to tell a strange but refreshing story. Here’s another look at a criminally overlooked masterpiece.   

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

Way back at the 2015 Comic-Con in San Diego, there was a bit of buzz about a certain project. OK, maybe a lot of buzz. But what would you expect from a book written by Mark Waid and J.G Jones? (Oh, and by the way, Jones painted the whole thing). As if that wasn’t enough of a selling point, the comic — called Strange Fruit, strangely — is set in a famous, historical period of American history, the Great Mississippi flood of 1927. After reading it in floppies, I finally snagged a hardcover when it came out. And boy was it a beauty!

Back to the premise, the fact that it is set in the Jim Crow South is where ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ ends. Beastly plantation owners? Check. Angry, overworked slaves? Check. Torch-wielding, blood-lustin’ Klansmen? Check. Strange, black, absolutely naked, and possibly super-powered being? Uh…check. The stage was set perfectly by the writers, who establish the characters pretty early, showing from the beginning that this is obviously an unusual comic book.

“In the fictional, rainy town of Chatterlee, Mississippi, a strange, silent giant makes an appearance whose nature angers the local KKK. Now, he’s a super-strong colossus of a man whose skin is black, so you can imagine the resulting drama.”

Based on characters and events in the fictional, rainy town of Chatterlee, Mississippi, a strange, silent giant makes an appearance whose nature angers the local KKK. Now, he’s a super-strong colossus of a man whose skin is black, so you can imagine the resulting drama. By the time I tore through the pages, I was breathless. Or at least I thought I was until I saw what the aforementioned mysterious, major character used the second Confederate national flag for. I mean, this is the same flag known as ‘the stainless banner’ in reference to the white field that comprised a large part of its design elements, which designer William T. Thompson now infamously declared symbolized the “supremacy of the white man”. Also, the N-word is tossed around casually like a greeting.

But hey, in Waid and Jones’ defense, you’re reading a book which has rich dialogue like: “White folk ain’t much gonna cotton to yo running ’round with yo Johnson hangin’ out!” And that’s just one moment, of many, during which a reader would be reminded that he or she’s not simply reading a blockbuster book by heavyweight, big-name creators but something special.

Having been longtime friends, Waid (Superman: Birthright, Daredevil) and Jones (Y: The Last Man, Wanted) had been trying to find the perfect duet all these years. With both of them being Southern natives who grew up during the Civil Rights wars, they certainly had a personal story to tell. They had actually begun work on Strange Fruit a long time ago, having discussed it one way or another since Jones shared the basic idea with Waid. The writing duo was born and while it took a while to put the project together, they utilized the waiting time to get contracts finalized and ruminate on what direction they were heading.

The wait paid off, big time. Even today, the book stands firm in its brilliance and strange topicality. Jones’ painted work — with the spot-on American-ness of Norman Rockwell and the gorgeously detailed power of Alex Ross — has its own individual style and energy. And does it sizzle! Ordinary bar scenes are elevated to things of beauty while conversations come positively alive. And don’t get me started about the action scenes. The settings are all well-realized, as evidenced by the obviously painstaking research done on clothes and buildings of the ’20s.

“If you find the name of the comic book ‘Strange Fruit’ familiar, it is because it is a song first performed by Billie Holiday in 1939, written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem. It protested – you guessed it – racism.”

The creators, also, had experienced the racial clashes firsthand as youngsters. Jones says while he finds it sad and infuriating that the issues within remain topical nearly a century after, it shows the nation has not traveled as far down the road as hoped. If you find the name of the comic book ‘Strange Fruit’ familiar, it is because it is a song first performed by Billie Holiday in 1939, written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem. It protested – you guessed it – racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans, and is considered a classic.

Both Waid and Jones have admitted that their story was a tough one to tell, which they do in this book, without – ahem – whitewash, and with what they described as a fair share of rough imagery and language. Racism, particularly the violent kind, is a major issue in today’s headlines and a rereading of Strange Fruit has never been timelier. So much so that way back in 2015 when the series debuted, I felt it was sure to provoke thought. Plus it’s a damn good yarn they’ve spun, one that I daresay, was Eisner bait then. But that wasn’t to be, and while many might have forgotten it exists, I strongly feel it is time for it to be revisited. It will be strange, yes. But it will also be fresh. 

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#AkumbuReviews: Children of the Quicksands by Efua Traoré

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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.

Akumbu Uche

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. 

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GeekAfrique’s Writer of the Year: Nnedi Okorafor

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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.

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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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