Little Suns – Zakes Mda | A Review by Elke Seghers

There were others before him. But we start with Malangana because that is where our story begins. (p.7)

The South African novelist, poet and playwright Zakes Mda, author of critically acclaimed novels like Ways of Dying and Heart of Redness, has published his tenth novel. Little Suns starts in the fashion of the oral storytelling tradition of praise poets who pass on the history of South African clans from generation to generation. The books intertwines the historical events of the murder on colonial magistrate Hamilton Hope at the end of the 19th century with the legends of the amaMpondomise, bolstering this historical novel with clan genealogy. The protagonist Malangana who is tasked to groom the horse of his brother king Mhlontlo is not more than a side note of history, a ‘little sun’ in the universe. However, his story provides us insight into the heroic resistance of his people against the colonial occupation. When magistrate Hope disrespects the amaMpondomise by, amongst others, forcing them to take up arms against Basotho rebels in the Basotho gun war of 1880 – 1881, he gets assassinated by Mhlontlo and his men, who subsequently go into exile in Lesotho.

Next to dealing with this episode in history, the novel tells Malangana’s personal story of what could not be. The encounter with the British in 1880 puts Malangana’s marriage with the bushmen girl Mthwakazi on hold, as he has to defend his people at the loss of leading his own life. While residing in exile, Malangana never stops thinking of what he missed out on. The events of 1880 are alternated with Malangana’s search of that time lost and pursuit of Mthwakazi in 1903: ‘He has returned to continue exactly where he left off. Except he cannot continue alone. Hence his quest.’ (p.9)

By jumping between 1880 and 1903, the book plays out the universal against the particular. As Malangana starts writing history by taking part in the struggle, the possibility of a love affair is wiped out, suggesting that being a hero conflicts with leading a personal life. Significantly enough, the book ends when the love story begins, signalling how the particular is never part of history. In that sense, Little Suns reflects upon traditional history, which, unlike the novel, is not concerned with singular stories. In short, Mda’s book balances historical events with what is not part of history.

Linking to this, the novel integrates aspects of many different genres. While the book relies heavily on names and dates, which gives it a sense of historical accuracy, it is interlaced with the magical, incorporated by means of legends, folk tales and songs. This is not surprising as, for the research for Little Suns, Mda combined historical records with the stories his relatives, descendants of the amaMpondomise, shared with him. By mixing the factual with the anecdotal, this novel reminds us of how blurry the boundaries between history and story truly are. In 1903, the assassination of Hope is just as true as Malangana’s compulsion to neigh like a horse and the existence of the folkloric Thunderman. Little Suns also signals the confidence sometimes placed in traditional beliefs like, for example, the mystical instinct umkhondo. Ergo, the book emphasizes that truth is relative and that there are many ways to recount the past.

The existence of conflicting stories shows most clearly in the theme of colonization. The book exhibits the derogatory discourse of the colonizers and tells of the reply of the amaMpondomise, who, when attacked in their traditions, kill Hope in a final bid for self-governance. This event has different meanings, as for one side it is a cruel act of violence, while for the other a symbol of last resistance. Little Suns suggests that the war for power is not only waged with weapons, but also with words, as the British are trying to claim the land by renaming it and, for example, the Senqu river becomes the Orange River. Significantly enough, the amaMpondomise try to uphold their pride with a mock trial against the British. Colonization is after all also about discourse, about the stories that live in the minds of the people. This is however a story of defeat for the amaMpondomise and they become more and more assimilated into the colonial system, eventually even on the level of the landscape they inhabit, as the British administration makes an attempt at ‘taming the landscape and making it more civilised by planting pine, gum and popular trees imported from the mother country’ (p.212).

In 1903, we see the effects of the British scramble for power. When Malangana returns from exile, the days of the kingdom of the amaMpondomise are over, and new people have come to live in the region and lord over its old inhabitants. The place has changed, but at the same time it is inevitably connected with its history. Similarly, Malangana may have become an old man, but he has not made peace with his past. Mthwakazi haunts him in his nightmares and the traumatic loss of the horse he used to groom has resulted in Malangana uncontrollably neighing like a horse. By going back and forth between 1880 and 1903, we are reminded that the past lives on in the present and that time is always compressed. In that sense, Little Suns is also concerned with present-day South Africa, which has become what it is because of its history. And if the country neighs, that has its reasons.

In summary, Little Suns is so much more than a historical novel. It is a book reflective of its own nature, balancing history with story and past with present. It is hybrid in genre, feeding historically accurate events with chunks of legends, folk tales and songs. As it jumps between 1880 and 1903, Mda’s book comprises romance and politics, the particular and the universal, the legend and the historical, the little suns and the big ones.

Mda, Zakes. 2015, Little Suns. Cape Town: Umuzi, ISBN: 978-1-4152-0904-2 (Hardback)

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2016

Black Inked Pearl: A Girl’s Quest – Ruth Finnegan | A Review by Sola Adeyemi

Black Inked Pearl: A Girl’s Quest by Ruth Finnegan is an unusual romance novel, the first of that kind I am going to come across in a long while. It is a poetic riddle that expresses the journey of a girl, Kate in search of lost love. The novel is set in the dream world, or rather, is conceived in dreams, with images of this world and another intertwining and interweaving to construct an epic quest reminiscent of the kind found in major world writings. There are echoes from the Greek myths, from Irish folklore, from Christian tenets, from African legends and from that indecipherable existence populated by dream beings. It is indeed a magical book.

Before I had read a few pages, thoughts sprang to my mind: Amos Tutuola is not dead, he is alive in the writing of Ruth Finnegan. There are tales of quest from African myths and folktales, and in the literary works of African writers such as Tutuola, in particular The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town (1952), the first African novel in English published outside Africa, where the narrator traces his dead palmwine tapper to the abode of the dead. Or in the Yoruba novels of D. O. Fagunwa where the Quest-motif provides a series of events such as the ones in Black Inked Pearl, where the narrator – in the first instance, Akara-Oogun (in Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole (1939), translated by Wole Soyinka as A Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’ Saga  (1982) – joins other hunters to brave several vicissitudes in search of peace.

The plot is simple; familiar. The narrative centres on the thoughts of an Irish girl and her lover whose mystery is not quite resolved – or resolved in a magical realist manner – and whom she had rejected in a moment of panic. She traces her recollection from before meeting the lover to expose a life-long quest to finding him. To implant the circumstances of her being and her action, Kate recalls and shares her Irish upbringing in an Irish convent, with all the emotional and academic directions, re-directions and mis-directions that emanated from that. On the banks of an African river, the now very successful professional suddenly recognises a hollowness in her life, the kind that can only be filled by reuniting with a lover whom she had passionately and intensely loved but whom she had rejected nonetheless. Could falling in love have been a result of wanting to revolt against the restrictive Quaker education by a life that is trapped in years of endless indoctrination? I think the answer to that is in the novel.

In any case, Kate begins a quest, an all-consuming quest, to find this mysterious lover whose gaze sets souls on fire and turns young impressionable girls into dreamers of dreams so terrifying and absorbing! She visits all the known physical haunts and the shadowy dream world, including the underworld, to re-cover the lost love – the kingdom of beasts, where the cagy wolf leads her on ‘winged feet… to the great hall to see the heavenly archive’ (p. 108); a trendy London restaurant, an old people’s home, and several other possible rendezvous before heading back to the hazy spaces around the Donegal Sea where it all started. Yet, the lover proves elusive until Kate finally locates the lover trapped in the heavenly spaces of hell that is at once Grecian, Christian, and dreamy. She even becomes ‘translated’ (p. 115) into a golden Garden of Eden which ‘was the traced lacerie of true larch trees, gold into the clouds… and a wondrous beautiful glade with clear sky above, gentle wind blowing, and fragrant soughing song of boughs’ (p. 115). Yes, this dream world has a ‘clear sky’, which is unlike any above the stormy seas off Donegal. She encounters ‘Adam’ and ‘Mr Business Snake’ whose spiels remind one of those scams that could come from anywhere. At a great cost to her life, she saves her lover and dying love. They walk together, hand-in-hand, toward heaven, promising a predictable dénouement to the romantic yarn. However, at the gate separating hell from heaven, the lover escapes first but the Golden Gates clang shut, leaving Kate entrapped by the dusts of hell, enshrouded in her fear and screams and impotence. ‘No man had ever found a path to heaven if the gate was closed… no trumpets on the other side… not purgatory, not hell, not death. Just – nothing… the void. The between no-where’ (p. 241).

But that is not the unhappy ending that the reader by then expects. For the lover now begins his own quest and at last, locates Kate in the dust though, to his anger – fury – and disappointment, and a reverberation of the initial reject, his sacrifice is not recognised and Kate does not thank him. This ageless love is on the wane. And the gates: still shut.

On the way back to heaven, guided by a little beetle – this novel is full of anthropomorphic beings – Kate debates with herself on saving her love, and in the end, in spite of her poor perception of the order of numbers, or of emotions, or of time, and in spite of herself, her lover saves her. Finally, Kate comes to the ultimate realisation – a man (or woman) should not fall in love with a river, for he would have to fall in love with a mountain to understand the river, and he would have to fall in love with the forest to achieve happiness; life – and love – is a riddling riddle. In the end, her quest is not in vain: she finds herself and recognises that she is the unexpected pearl that she thought was buried in the heart of her lover.

Like an enduring dream, the images in this poetic, epic, romantic novel flit through the memory – now vividly clear and memorable; now dull, blunted and fragmented, with moderated emotions and agents of recall. Some clear memories end in the arena of vague meanderings, as the lover feels / webs her way through the warren of reminiscence. At other recollections, the muddled thoughts and disjointed ox-bow lake of ideas suddenly flood over in a dazzling array of lights to reveal a core experience of the relationship between Kate and her lover.

Sprinkled throughout the book are allusions – what the author terms ‘literary allusions’ – to modern and ancient texts, and some original poems, which lend postmodernist assumptions and universalizing propensity to Kate sojourn, emphasizing and questioning relationships, memory and other texts to construct a narrative that threads through a weave of truths, half-truths, faction and surrealistic remembering. There is an resonance of Harold Pinter’s key line in the play Old Times (1971) here: “There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place”. It is this intertextuality, which connects Kate’s ‘life’ to that of the author, as Ruth Finnegan spices Kate’s journey with allusions from Greek texts, the Bible and other historiography that she recollects from her Quaker education in Ireland in the early 21st century, her time at Oxford (Oxenford!) and her passages through Europe, Africa and Australasian regions. At other times, the impression intensely converges on Kate’s mind, with all the undependability of the agent of recall; the dream-like familiarity that scrutinises humanity and that imperfections. At that time, you find ‘understanding’ between the ambiguity of the dream world and the inexplicableness of what we recognise as reality.

This epic love journey is fuelled by love but propelled – wheeled? paddled? encouraged? winged? – by myths and legends as well as those intertextual passages from the  Odyssey, Iliad, the Bible, Saint Augustine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Milton, Irish folklore, various modern poems, and by the voice of James Joyce and the nuns from Finnegan’s past. Ogun, the Yoruba god of creativity, war and smithery is summoned to forge a path across ‘The way no-way’ (pp. 248-261). It is a quest that ends in delight, and pain, and joy, and angst, and relief and despair. For, ‘in the beginning was the Word, the creator of Truth, the very tool of love’ (p. 294). In the beginning was the end, and the arousal from the dream becomes recognition of the pearl, the black inked pearl. This is a novel that is to be enjoyed by all, particularly readers who derive pleasure in a specialized use of language to evoke mind-bending realism.

Finnegan, Ruth, Black Inked Pearl: A Girl’s Quest, New York, NY: Garn Press, LLC, 2015. ISBN: 9781942146179 (pbk); 9781942146162 (hardcover); 9781942146186 (Elizabeth-book). 306pp.

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Summer 2016

Beneath the Black Sun of Cabinda – Virginie Mouanda Kibinde | A Review by Inge Brinkman

This is a translation of Virginie Mouanda Kibinde’s first novel, originally entitled Les âmes de la forêt (Souls of the forest, 2002). In a second edition of 2004 the book was renamed Au soleil noir du Cabinda. In the introduction, the translator, Vanessa Everson explains that this modification of the title frames the novel more closely to its setting in Cabinda and the tragedies of life under this ‘black sun’ as described in the novel (p. 1-4). The oil-rich enclave of Cabinda, officially a province of Angola, but separated from the rest of the country by a narrow strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has long been the setting of war. After the colonial war against Portugal, war broke out between the government forces of the newly independent country of Angola and the Cabindan separatist movement FLEC. Since then, more than 200.000 Cabindans have met their death at the hands of Angolan soldiers and many more have been forced to live in exile.

The novel starts in a calm African village, its couleur locale emphasized through the usage of words in the local language and references to ‘custom’. Albino, the protagonist of ‘almost twenty-one’ (p. 21), visits his grandmother who raised him after his mother’s death. Yet, underneath the quiet, we can already feel the tension: the village is populated by refugees – Angolans from Cabinda who have to live in Congo-Brazzaville because of the war. And so, the quiet village life also knows the melancholy of exile.

Soon after, Albino leaves for France on a scholarship to study medicine and visits Portugal to look for his grandfather, a Portuguese military who had been the governor of Cabinda during the colonial era. It becomes a traumatic encounter for both, and in a flashback we then learn that Albino’s grandfather had had a strong hand in the war in Cabinda, the ‘Kuwait of Africa’, as Kibinde once called it (introduction, p. 4).

After the Portuguese had left in panic, they sold the region to the Angolan government forces, who invade Cabinda with full force soon after. These army kids who had known nothing but war and constant indoctrination of ‘Afro-Stalinist’ propaganda (p. 36) completely destroy Albino’s village, raping and murdering in the process. His mother dead, baby Albino is raised by his grandmother, and together they seek refuge in Congo-Brazzaville.

After his stay in France, Albino returns to Cabinda to search his father who has become a guerrilla in the separatist movement. He finds him, handicapped after having stepped on a landmine, but still strong-willed. Albino also finds the love of his life, the beautiful village girl Maria. Despite his love for her and his father’s wish for him to become a guerrilla, Albino returns to France to finish his studies.

A second visit to his grandfather is so unsettling that the latter realizes that his life in Portugal is even more miserable than it was in Cabinda: ‘In Cabinda, people despise me – they hate me. They’d kill me if they had the chance. That means that for them, I exist. But here, no one knows me, no one even looks at me’ (p. 75). From this negative assessment, Albino’s grandfather decides to return to Africa, even if already very old and crippled. There he is able to reach the village where his former mistress, Albino’s grandmother used to live, only to learn that she has just died and people are preparing for her funeral. He is allowed to attend the funeral, but then he is tortured by the village youth. The women of the village have pity on him and show him a path to escape, but he meets his fate by stepping on a landmine (p. 98-100).

In the meantime Albino has concluded his studies and returns to Cabinda to start a clinic in the guerrilla-controlled forests. He lives happily with his Maria, but the novel ends sadly with her death during a raid by the government forces (p. 120).

The publishing house advertises the book with the remark that ‘this novel is much more than a political tract’, but at times Beneath the black sun of Cabinda is precisely going too much in that direction. A quote like this says it all: ‘At that time, certain young African states emerging from colonial bondage adopted the Soviet Union’s totalitarian Marxist-Leninist doctrine, which in Africa translated into scientific socialism and the one-party state. For that reason, Congo was denying even its most recent and closest historic ties to the benefit of a completely foreign and inadequate philosophy’ (p. 40). Such clumsy political jargon sharply contrasts with other sections in the novel, where the book’s language is nearly poetic and pleasant to read. For example, a mad woman wandering in the bush who had lost her children when her Portuguese patron/father took them to Portugal sings about her hope and despair: ‘The entrance to the house, the entrance to the village, the entrance to the forest/ The stranger approaches from there/ The messenger comes from there/ From afar he brings news/  Good or bad news/ Happiness or sadness in view/ As told us by the messenger from the cliffs/ Watch carefully the footprints ahead of you….’ (p. 116). Another example would be the reaction of the spirits when the deceased Maria does not want to leave her children: ‘You are in another place now; nothing is the same. When you speak, they hear only the murmur of the wind; when you move, they see only a whirlwind of sand. You aren’t with them anymore, come with us!’ (p. 120). Stylistically then, the novel can hardly be called balanced; at times it makes for tedious reading, at other instances there is rhythm in the language.

The representation of women in the novel is strongly connected to race, bordering on the old notion of Mother Africa. Thus after it is said that Albino could not help ‘pursuing’ some women in Lyon, the fact that he does not develop a longstanding relationship with any of them is explained with: ‘his multiracial fascination with women from the four corners of the earth did not make him forget Maria […] She represented the mother he had never known, and the homeland he had been deprived of from the time he was born’ (p. 80). Also on page 111 we learn about ‘the uniqueness of black women,’ and Cabinda is compared to a ‘betrothed’, having been ‘besmirched’ and then ‘tossed aside to rapists’ by the ‘groom Portugal’ (p. 35). This classic gender framework no longer ‘works’: it was a novel thought in the négritude of the 1940s, but by now sounds very much like beating a dead horse.

Kibinde portrays men and women in all their vulnerability to violence. She tells of women left behind after their Portuguese patrons have taken their children to Portugal, of rape and murder (Maria and Albino’s mother) by the government forces, and of the destructive force of landmines (Albino’s father and his grandfather). These are men and women reduced to silence (p. 37).

Albino’s indignation about all this runs deep: ‘He knew that one day he would write about it all. He would write the history of this hidden people, who had been expressly side-lined for purely economic reasons’ (p. 76). The indignation of the author, who grew up in Congo, but whose family hails from Cabinda, may run as deep, but poetics may be a more forceful way of voicing that than political argument. Especially in literature.

Beneath the Black Sun of Cabinda / Virginie Mouanda Kibinde, 2015, Stellenbosch: African Sun Media, ISBN: 978-1-920689-87-2, ISBN: 978-1-920689-88-9 [e-book], 127 pp (including foreword, glossary and translator’s bibliography)

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Summer 2016

Travel Literature on the African Continent in the 19th Century: Analysis of the various Influences on ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Travels in West Africa’ – Sabine Brandstätter | A Review by Inge Brinkman

This small book concerns the author’s MA-thesis from Graz University (Austria). It discusses travel writing, with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa (1897) as examples. The aim is to show how travel literature was shaped by contextual influences as well as personal experiences, and how it in turn strengthened British colonial and imperial projects.

The booklet starts with a historical overview of travel literature, including a section on ‘pre-historic’ rock art depicting aspects of mobility. No justification is given for this interpretation of the history of travel literature, and the entire part is not pertinent to the research question. Subsequently an indication is given of the main characteristics of travel literature, broadly based on one article (Borm 2004). Pages 33-44 offer a general introduction to European imperialism, relating it to travel literature. This chapter concludes with brief biographies of Conrad and Kingsley. By then the reader is already more than halfway through the text without any sound interpretative statement on Heart of Darkness or Travels in West Africa.

The subsequent discussion of these books deals with aspects of narrator, speech, mode, metaphors and other features, also drawing on Conrad’s diary. These formal and structural aspects of the texts are offered separately from the books’ content, as if they are unrelated to the issues of imperialism and colonialism.

Only as of page 62 the reader learns more about the ways in which imperialism is addressed and evaluated in Heart of Darkness and Travels in West Africa. This interpretation is predominantly based on remarks about content, and framed as ‘influence’ of society on the texts. After brief remarks on gender and patriarchy, the book concludes with: ‘Travels in West Africa and Heart of Darkness are representatives of the English society’s dominant ideologies, views and values’ (p. 85).

Many critical studies have been written about Conrad and Kingsley. The author has apparently not bothered to consult these, and took to re-inventing the wheel instead. Observations – such as the allocation of speech – have all been made long ago (a good example is Chinua Achebe’s critique on Conrad from 1977) and in fact, much more refined analyses of travel literature have already been made. We need only think of the concepts ‘imperial gaze’ and ‘trope’ as developed in postcolonial studies, and successfully employed in various publications on travel literature.

Apart from these critical remarks on Brandstätter’s analysis, the publication also suffers from grammatical errors and typos. The thesis was published by Akademikerverlag, a publishing house specializing in publishing dissertations. It can only be encouraged students and junior scholars disseminate their work, and the idea of print-to-order system is fine as such. Yet, this thesis should only have been published after thorough reviewing and, in view of the quality, contents and size, it comes at a far too pricy level. Fortunately, Graz University makes the thesis available on-line for free:

Sabine Brandstätter, Travel literature on the African continent in the 19th century: Analysis of the various Influences on ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Travels in West Africa’ (Saarbrücken: Akademikerverlag, 2014). ISBN-10: 363972030X. Bibliography, 6 figures. 100 pp.


Borm, Jan (2004). ‘Defining Travel: On the Travel Book, Travel Writing and Terminology’. In Glenn Hooper and Tim Youngs eds. Perspectives on Travel Writing. Hants: Ashgate Publishing Limited (13-26).

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2016

Die mond vol vuur. Beskouings oor die werk van Breyten Breytenbach – Louise Viljoen | A Review by Martina Vitackova

The South African poet, essayist, freedom fighter and painter Breyten Breytenbach hardly needs any introduction since he is perhaps the best-known Afrikaans poet in the world. Neither does Afrikaans literary scholar Louise Viljoen, who recently published a monograph of twelve essays on Breytenbach’s literary work – Die mond vol vuur. Beskouings oor die werk van Breyten Breytenbach (2014). Poetry has a central role in the publication, which corresponds with Breytenbach’s oeuvre, comprising more than twenty works of poetry.

The book opens with a number of essays on broader topics, an introduction of a kind. The first chapter looks at the usage of proper names, a very typical phenomenon in Breytenbach’s work. The writer himself appears in his fictional texts, often under alliterations such as Bangai Bird or Buffalo Bill, but he also uses fictional names in his real life. One example can be Christian Jean-Marc Galaska, the name on the passport with which Breytenbach entered South Africa in 1975. Then, Viljoen concentrates on biological, poetical, political and biblical father figures in his texts in chapter 2. Representation of Africa in Breytenbach’s writing is the topic of chapter 3, and the role of the reader in his works written in jail of chapter 4. After these more general chapters essays on more concrete topics or specific texts follow, such as tension between local and global identities in Dog Heart (1998), parody in the poem ballade van ontroue bemindes, the movement between inside and outside in Return to paradise (1993), or the author on stage in the dramas Boklied (1998) and Die toneelstuk (2001). There are also two chapters on Breytenbach and his work as intertext: Afrikaans poets in conversation with Breytenbach as public figure, and Afrikaans poets in conversation with Breytenbach’s poetic work. These two chapters look at Breytenbach’s role in South African society as well as in the Afrikaans literary field.

Louise Viljoen, who in 2009 had published a similar collection of essays on the work of another world-known Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog, proves to have a comprehensive knowledge of Breytenbach’s creative work. Also in case of this book, each chapter stands for a previously presented academic paper or article. The essays have however been rewritten in a lively, easy to read style and updated. While analysing a specific poem, such as ballade van ontroue bemindes in chapter 5, or a more general topic, such as the usage of personal names in the first chapter, Viljoen always succeeds in identifying typical traits and themes in Breytenbach’s writing. The twelve chapters cover analyses of selected works, contextualize the creative process, and look at the reception of Breytenbach’s writing within the specific socio-cultural circumstances of South Africa. Viljoen displays theoretical knowledge ranging from Freud and Sankar to Ingarden, which she applies meticulously to the contextual analysis of Breytenbach’s oeuvre as a whole. Additionally, she uncovers unexpected connections within or outside of South African literature to explore the relevance of Breytenbach in world literature.

And yet, disregarding the complexity of discussed issues and the vast range of knowledge, the essays read very smoothly. Viljoen succeeds in producing a text accessible not exclusively to academics. The essays included in the book can be read individually, making it also perfect teaching material. When read as a whole, however, Die mond vol vuur works as a jigsaw puzzle, with each chapter bringing new, interesting insights into the creative work of Breyten Breytenbach.

The title, die mond vol vuur (the mouth full of fire), captures the strength of Breytenbach’s literary work, the great effect it has on its readers, and consequently on the South African literary field as such. As the two essays on reception of his work suggest we cannot forget the impact of Breytenbach’s writing on the social and political situation not only in South Africa. After all, we are speaking of an author whose work was banned by the Apartheid government, and who spent a significant amount of time in political exile and also in jail as a political prisoner. His work, however, stays relevant and keeps spreading the message of equality, democracy and freedom. Nothing Breytenbach has ever written, before or after 1994, can be thought of outside his general political conscience. As Viljoen explains in the introduction, die mond vol vuur is also a wordplay on the title of an anthology of Breytenbach’s work from 1995, Die hand vol vere (The Hand full of feathers). It is also a line in the last poem in the same anthology:

Die hand vol vere. Die hondevel vol vaarte. Die mond vol vuur. Die hartvlam vol voortyd.

The hand full of feathers. The dog’s skin full of speed. The mouth full of fire. The heart flame full of before-time. (own translation)

This subtle wordplay is only possible thanks to a thorough knowledge of Breytenbach’s writing and an excellent ability to close-read, which we are accustomed to in Viljoen’s writing. This aesthetically pleasing publication will surely be an asset to the library of any scholar of Afrikaans literature or anyone interested in Afrikaans poetry.

Louise Viljoen, Die mond vol vuur. Beskouings oor die werk van Breyten Breytenbach. Stellenbosch: African Sun Media, 2014. 329 pp. ISBN: 978-1-920338-83-1

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Spring 2016

Mrs. Shaw – Mukoma wa Ngugi | A Review by Gilbert Braspenning

Truth, lies, betrayal and (lost) loyalties in Mukoma wa Ngugi’s ‘Mrs. Shaw’

The Story

Kalumba flees his home country, the fictional Kwatee Republic, and as an exile more or less builds up a new life in America. However, the story of an elderly British lady, Mrs. Shaw, confronts him hard with his own and his home country’s history. It triggers him to return home and to help his comrades with building up the country. In the meantime he wants to come to terms with history and more specifically with his country’s past. But in history the truth is often disguised, or buried, especially in the history of Kwatee Republic. Priest Baba Ogum, an important character in the book, warns his people:

The Bible says – your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy. For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. I am here to tell you this: that which has lived cannot truly die. Who we are, even though buried deep down in the earth, will become light. Earthquakes break the caskets in which we bury the truth; floods wash the buried truth clean. The earth will give birth to what you bury. (p. 40)

These are prophetic words of Ogum’s father, who uses them in one of his sermons. From experience of life he knows that the truth or lies are always used at random, to the leaders’ benefits, be they the ones in power or the leaders of the liberation movement.
Ironically enough, Baba Ogum also predicts the mystification around his own death. He is killed in a massacre, together with several freedom fighters and other victims of the dictatorial regime that rules Kwatee Republic. But this massacre is hushed up, by the regime and the liberation movement alike.

History and interpretation

Kalumba , a freedom fighter like his friend Ogum, is the only witness of the massacre. With the help of Ogum and his lover Sukena, Kalumba flees the country as he is, like Baba Ogum,  also on the list of people targeted to be eliminated by the regime. As an exile in America Kalumba shoves away the truth about the massacre for ten years.

But also Ogum and Sukena, loyal as they are to the liberation movement, have to keep quiet about the massacre. So, loyalty to the movement is for them more important than the truth about Ogum’s father’s and others’ death. Truth, lies, betrayal and (lost) loyalties are recurring themes in the book and in the history of the fictional Kwatee Republic.

For example, in the nineteenth century, the British armed the Masasi – clearly an allusion to the Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania – in the assumption that they would take up these weapons against neighbouring tribes that also the British wanted to defeat. But instead, the Masasi used these weapons against the British. So, the British felt deceived by the Masasi people and as a result unleashed a real war on them, which of course made the Masasi  fight back even more intensely. It meant a decisive start in the liberation struggle, a point of no return to independence.

Later on in colonial history the British held the Kwatee liberation movement responsible for the disappearance  of the National Security Officer in Eastern Africa, Mr. Shaw. Although the British were not sure about this themselves, it gave them the perfect excuse to intensify their struggle against the liberation movement. Of course, this again enhanced the bravery and fighting spirit of the freedom fighters, thus initiating the end of British rule and the beginning of the ‘First Independence’ of Kwatee Republic, as it is called in the book. The alleged historical episode whereby Mr. Shaw was captivated by the liberation movement, and had his head chopped off, has become part of Kwatean history. Later in the novel it turns out that this story was not true. And so it was a myth; a myth that determined Kwatee’s history.

During the first independence period, the same leaders that fought for the freedom of the country gradually become real dictators themselves, thus deceiving the people who fought at their side or otherwise supported them during the colonial period. Innocent people disappear at random, are imprisoned or are killed for no particular reason. Of course, for the rulers, the truth is of no use; lies and betrayal rule the country. It is in this period that the massacre on Baba Ogum and members of the  (second) liberation movement takes place. But, contrary to what you would expect, the movement doesn’t want to reveal the truth about the massacre, so as to use it to their benefit. Instead they compromise themselves by striking a deal with the dictatorial regime to hide the truth, in exchange for some political favours. Thus in turn, by burying the truth, the movement deceives the people, even it’s own comrades like Ogum and Kalumba: Ogum can’t even tell the truth to his mother about his father’s death. And Kalumba, being a witness of the massacre in which Baba Ogum is killed, can’t reveal the terrible truth and has to live with it most of his life.

So, The Kwatean history recalled in the novel seems to underpin the idea that the course of history is determined by betrayal, myths and lies, rather than by chronological events, political moves and developments. For the course of history fiction seems to be more important than faction, the novel seems to say.

Personal relations

Also on the personal level the undertone in the novel is not an optimistic one: friendship, love and loyalties don’t last very long: Kalumba and Ogum are friends since childhood and comrades in the liberation movement but the history of their country and the death of Ogum’s father make them drift apart, not least of all because truth has a different meaning for them:

The truth could exist for its own sake; it had to serve a purpose in order to become life. This Ogum believed fervently. In the same way that Kalumba believed even without knowing it that the truth was inviolable, truth at all costs, Ogum believed that a truth can be compromised if it brings a better tomorrow. And so, for many reasons over which together they had no control, they were heading for disaster. When they recognized their brotherhood, history pulled them apart. (p. 214)

After fleeing Kwatee Republic in the early 1990s, Kalumba lives in exile in America. Like many an exile or a foreigner in the Western world, his start is very difficult: he is lonely and earns a living by doing all sorts of menial jobs. His life takes a turn for the better as he takes up a PhD project at university but particularly after he meets Mrs. Shaw, in a bar he regularly frequents to drink away his loneliness. Mrs. Shaw is an elderly lady who gradually reveals her own peculiar history, a history that turns out to be also part of Kalumba’s history. More so, Mrs. Shaw’s stories confuse him and confront him with his personal history, with his former love for Sukena – now Ogum’s lover – his brotherhood with Ogum and particularly with the massacre he witnessed. And so,  at the moment when the second liberation movement is about to win the elections, in 2002, Kalumba returns home to support his country:

Five hundred years of unbroken domination starting with slavery to our present-day Dictator is finally about to be broken. And I want to be in that new nation. I deserve to be there because I am a survivor of its second war for independence. (…) I want to be part of my nation’s new education initiative. I will teach literature and history at Kwatee National University. (p. 75)

But, as soon as he is back, it becomes clear that Kalumba wants to teach the people the true history of his country and that he is not going to keep quiet about the massacre of a decade ago.. This is welcomed by the masses, who come to realize that they were all those years deceived, by the dictatorial rulers and by the liberation movement alike. But of course, this ‘spreading of the light’, as Baba Ogum did in his sermons, is not welcomed by those who ‘buried the truth’ all those years.

And as Ogum also buried the truth about his father’s death, his relation with Kalumba – already gradually changed over the years – takes  a dramatic turn of events. Also Kalumba’s relation with Sukena has changed, resulting in ambiguous feelings when they meet again for the first time after his return. On the one hand there’s still a lot of affection, but on the other hand this is overruled by different loyalities: on the part of Kalumba by his love for Melissa, a Puertorican refugee with whom he developed a relationship, and by his loyalty to the truth; in the case of Sukena by her loyalty to Ogum and to the liberation movement, for which the truth can’t be revealed.

Pessimistic view

So, both on a historical and on a personal level, the novel seems to underpin the idea that the course of history and relations among people are determined rather by emotions based on fictions than on facts. And emotions can lead to love, affection and loyalty, but more often than not to loss, lies, betrayal and lost loyalties. Kalumba puts it as follows:

Yes, I very well understood this trail of broken treaties. I had been walking it since I was born. In fact, I had walked it right into exile. Unlike my father, I have never doubted what I know to be true – that the same hands that embrace one’s child will squeeze the life out of a neighbor’s child when war comes, that the same colonizer who built a church to save the native did not hesitate to burn it down when it housed rebels, and that my country’s leaders, black like me, speaking my language in tongues and praying to the same god, had sanctioned my torture by night and driven their children to school in the morning. (p. 57)

And a bit further Kalumba’s father says:

“Movements were formed and banned, leaders jailed, killed or exiled, and whole villages op people put in concentration camps. (…) Pretty much the same as it is now for your generation. Only your leaders are black’’, he would say. The ebb and flow of resistance and repression continued until… (p. 57)

The novel is abundant with these kinds of phrases. Therefore one could argue that ‘Mrs. Shaw’ has a pessimistic undertone: it hints at the cyclic course of (post)colonial history, in which one puppet regime follows upon another, and where massacres and other human disasters will happen over and over again.


This ‘historiographic lesson’ is worked out very well, in a superb way: mind gripping like a crime thriller; elucidating like a historical novel and ironical like a satire at it’s best. The writing style reminds you sometimes of the best of Ngugi wa Thiong’o – the author’s father – and of Meja Mwangi, not coincidentally two Kenyan writers.

One could read the novel also as a big assault on the dictators, the ruling class, the bourgeoisie and their Western allies in African countries, as in the best tradition of Ngugi’s novels and essays. In that respect, the following phrases, in which Ogum describes his and Kalumba’s  old neighbourhood, could have been written by Mukoma wa Ngugi’s father:

Ogum walked by Memorial Primary School, the best in the area, which catered to the local elite. (…) Past the golf club was On Time Police Station, as it was derisively called by the poor. For the local elites, however, the police were on time whenever they dialed 999. (…) He turned left, passed the rich shopping center, and found himself in front of Our Lady of Mercy Primary School. It was a run-down school filled with run-down children belonging to parents who worked in the tea plantations. (…) The walk from his house to Kalumba’s was like watching history, the past and present etched into the landscape, scarred like the people who made a life off it. It was a huge photo album that recorded the people’s tragedies and triumphs, deaths and rebirths. (…). A few hundred feet from the bus stop was Our Lady of Mercy Hospital. Like its namesake, it catered to the poor. The wealthy went to personal physicians and, when terribly sick, went to hospitals in Europe or South Africa. For the elites, the whole of Kwatee was a business transaction, a place to be farmed and mined, and they participated in nothing outside of golf and nightclubs and other monuments to their opulence. (p. 23-25)

And, when Mukoma wa Ngugi desbribes the plight of the workers in town, it’s as though you are reading Going Down River Road of Mweja Mwangi, who like no one else before majestically fictionalized town life in Nairobi. The power of Mukoma wa Ngugi’s language is immense, for example as he describes – in a few sober strokes like in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks – Kalumba’s loneliness while sitting in a bar on New Year’s Eve:

I take a long drink, and lugging my remaining beer, I skip the three or four barstools between us to sit next to the old white woman. Early into New Year’s Day, we are the only patrons in the bar – everyone else has a home to go to. This is an exceptionally bad time to be alone. We do not speak for a while. The bartender and owner of Eagle’s Bar looks over to see if we need drinks and then turns his attention to the muted TV tuned to some New Year’s celebration in New York.(p. 54)

Mrs. Shaw is a novel about truth, lies and betrayal in (post)colonial African history. It is also a study in exile, love, loss and (lost) loyalties. It is written in a style that weaves together the best traditions of East African writing seen so far.

Mrs. Shaw. A Novel – Mukoma wa Ngugi, 2015, Ohio University Press, ISBN:978-0-8214-2143-7 (hardback), 978-0-8214-4515-0 (ebook), 235 pp.

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Winter 2015-2016

Anthologie des poèmes d’amour des Afriques et d’ailleurs – Thierry Sinda | Une critique de Michèle Boin

Selon les termes de Thierry Sinda, cette anthologie est celle des neuf années d’un festival poétique qui a sa place au sein à la fois de la littérature francophone et du mouvement de la négritude.

Ce volume rassemble en effet un choix de poèmes sur le thème de l’amour parmi les œuvres, éditées ou inédites, qui ont été présentées à l’occasion du festival nommé le “Printemps des Poètes des Afriques et d’Ailleurs”, qui célèbre en 2013 ses dix années d’existence. L’année 2013 est aussi celle du centenaire de la naissance d’Aimé Césaire et de Jacques Rabémananjara, figures phares dans le mouvement littéraire de la négritude.

Dans la lignée de l’héritage de la négritude, le compilateur de cette anthologie entend aborder le mouvement poétique de ce qu’il appelle la “néo-négritude parisienne”. Par ce terme, il prend en compte le contexte de la marche silencieuse des Antillais pour la commémoration du 150ème anniversaire de l’abolition de l’esclavage en 1998, l’ascension du candidat Jean-Marie Le Pen au second tour de l’élection présidentielle française de 2002, et la première édition du “Printemps des Poètes des Afriques et d’Ailleurs” à Paris en 2004.

Cependant, à l’époque actuelle, l’Afrique est selon lui impropre à engendrer aujourd’hui  une “néo-négritude”,  et c’est pourquoi la “revalorisation de l’homme noir et de sa culture”, amorcée par le mouvement de la négritude, et la “revitalisation du monde noir dans les lettres françaises à une époque post- ou néo-coloniale” s’ancrent pour lui à Paris.

Thierry Sinda dans son introduction intitulée “Tels Phénix et Éros noirs dans une nuit blanche” se présente donc en “Socrate noir”pour “permettre aux auteurs néo-nègres de faire une descente orphique au plus profond d’eux-mêmes afin d’accoucher de poèmes mettant en avant la spécificité de l’expression amoureuse néo-nègre”, comme une des manifestations de “l’Être nègre dans un monde Blanc”. Ce qui lui permet d’employer les termes de “nègre” et d’”auteurs néo-nègres” (et non pas “africains”).

Mais, insiste-t-il, “ces poèmes, tout en revêtant à la fois un caractère individuel et collectif, ne relèvent en rien de l’esprit communautaire. Le mouvement de la néo-négritude inclut les textes des poètes de tous les horizons géographiques afin de s’inscrire dans le dialogue des cultures, lequel est source majeure d’enrichissement sociétal et de paix mondiale”.

Les pays et régions du monde dont la littérature francophone est ici représentée par des poèmes sélectionnés sont les suivants :  Algérie, Barbade, Bénin, Cameroun, Comores, Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d’Ivoire, France, Guadeloupe, Guinée, Guyane, Haïti, Inde, Italie, Madagascar, Maroc, Martinique, Pérou, Portugal, République démocratique du Congo, Sénégal, Tunisie, Vietnam, certains auteurs appartenant à deux pays ou régions à la fois.

Des chapitres préliminaires sont consacrés à la biographie et à la description de la carrière politique et littéraire de Jacques Rabémananjara (Madagascar, 23 juin 1913 – 2 avril 2005), ainsi que de Martial Sinda (Congo-Brazzaville, né le 2 avril 1935), les parrains du festival.

Pour ce qui est du corps de l’ouvrage, chaque rubrique consacrée à un poète comporte, outre le texte de poèmes, une note biographique et bibliographique – et parfois discographique.

Le livre comprend des poèmes de personnalités connues comme Léopold Sédar Senghor, René Maran, Aimé Césaire, ou Léon-Gontran Damas, mais aussi de nombreux autres auteurs qui contribuent à la vie de la francophonie. Nombre d’auteurs sont des amateurs poètes (parfois prolifiques) qui ont été frappés par l’inspiration alors qu’ils exercent ou exerçaient par ailleurs une profession non liée à la littérature.

Replacé dans le contexte de l’évolution de l’histoire politique et littéraire de la francophonie issue des liens entre la France et ses ex-colonies, ce vaste éventail fait découvrir la variété dans le style et la forme de poèmes se nourrissant d’un même thème, celui de l’amour.

Un autre élément contribue à la richesse de ce volume : celui des nombreuses illustrations, dessins, reproductions de lettres manuscrites, d’œuvres picturales, de couvertures de livres, photos, articles de journaux, de documents tels que des programmes de spectacles, etc. L’image rendue du terreau créatif de la manifestation du “Printemps des Poètes des Afriques et d’Ailleurs” n’en devient que plus concrète.

Anthologie des poèmes d’amour des Afriques et d’ailleurs / Thierry Sinda. Éditions Orphie, 2013, ISBN: 978-2-87763-861-6 (broché)

Ce critique est publié dans: Africa Book Link, Winter 2015-2016

Representing Multiculturalism in Comics and Graphic Novels – Carolene Ayaka and Ian Hague (Eds.) | A Review by Sara Oelrich Church

Understood as a visual medium that often combines imagery with text, usually in a sequential manner, comics are an art form perfectly predisposed towards conveying complex narrative structures.  Comics employ a wide variety of formats ranging from single panel editorial cartoons, to multi-panel comic strips, to comic book series, to Japanese manga and graphic novels, to perhaps the most recent iteration of the medium, webcomics.  Within these varied formats numerous strategies of representation may be encountered, lending a hybrid quality to the medium while also opening it to much debate.  The chief concern of this book is to examine how multiculturalism (itself a highly debatable term) is represented in comic arts.

Tellingly, the editors introduce this collection not by strictly defining the term ‘multiculturalism’ but by asking: ‘Is studying representations of multiculturalism in comics the same as producing multiculturalist comics scholarship?’ (p. 1).  Stemming from a 2012 Comics Forum conference, the pieces brought together in this volume constitute what might be described as an attempt towards a greater multicultural and cross-disciplinary dialogue on the representational possibilities of the medium.  Sites of cultural engagement include, very broadly: African American, Latino, East Asian American, South African, British, Spanish, Romanian, Israeli, Japanese, and Persian, amongst others.  Somewhat surprisingly, Lily Glasner’s chapter on an Israeli comic book argues for a multicultural discourse that includes children as a minority culture heretofore under-recognized as being oppressed by an adult majority culture (pp177-193).  Still, a tendency to lean towards North American and European comic arts prevails here: only one chapter out of the fifteen focuses on a specific African country’s comics (Andy Mason, The Presidential Penis: Questions of Race and Representation in South African Comic and Satirical Art, pp. 49-65).

In seeking to facilitate a wider examination of the structural forces that shape our concepts of culture as well as the visual and textual structures used to convey culture in comics, the editors chose to divide this volume into five distinct parts.  Part I, Histories and Contexts, consists of three essays dealing with the societal backgrounds of three specific developments in comic history.  Two of the essays deal with troubling depictions of black American and black South African subjects, respectively.  The first asks, can ‘counterculture’ act as an umbrella term under which harmful stereotyping and racial caricatures of black Americans may safely hide, or is there value in re-opening these wounds?  The second essay, written by a long-time cartoonist, points to the controversy behind caricaturing real-life political figures in post-apartheid South Africa, asking us to look for the historical structures that uphold racism before we shun all satire in the name of political-correctness.

Part II’s title, Depicting Difference, succinctly summarizes what it is that comics are so adept at doing by means of examining what Sarah D. Harris refers to as a ‘visual shorthand’ used to ‘zero in on racial and ethnic difference’ (p. 113).  The production of ideology by means of this visual shorthand is a common theme here, as it is utilized to both enforce and uphold depictions of difference. As Simon Grennan demonstrates, these depictions come to embody both the producers and the readers of comics (p. 69).  Mel Gibson’s chapter on using anthropomorphism as a visual tool for examining multicultural interactions in the human world is especially clear and brings a novel perspective to the topic of multiculturalism (pp. 83-89).

Part III, Monstrosity and Otherness, brings together three diverse analyses of depicting difference in comics, all of which point to the commodification of the depiction of the ‘Other’ as monstrous and its usefulness in societies.  The range of this section is notable, beginning with Sarah D. Harris’s discussion of Francisco de Goya’s ‘proto-comics’ (p. 114) alongside the modern Spanish comic The Masked Warrior.  Later, Ian Horton provides an Orwellian examination of colonialist stereotypes that have prevailed from British boys’ adventure comics of the early 20th century into present times, as well as an expected reference to Edward Said in regard to modern depictions of the hyper-sexualized Oriental. Jacob Birken concludes this section with a study on Japanese contemporary Shonen Manga.

Part IV, Challenging Assumptions, consists of two chapters dealing with comic books aimed at a juvenile audience.  The first takes the well-known and beloved Tintin series as its subject, arguing for the ‘indirect education’ (p. 163) that is possible when the series is translated into multiple languages and carefully edited for cultural clarity.  While stereotypical racial and ethnic depictions are acknowledged here, Maria-Sabina Daga Alexandru argues that Tintin ultimately asks its young readers to reexamine their own culturally received assumptions about others.  Lily Glasner’s chapter on an Israeli children’s comic has already been addressed here, and is included in this section of the book.

Finally, Part V, titled Case Studies, includes four chapters on comics and graphic novels that demonstrate the individual subject as locus of negotiation between seemingly fixed yet constantly shifting cultural identities.  It is in this section that I found one of the weaker reads of the entire volume, Emma Oki’s chapter on representing East Asian Americans (pp. 228-239).  While I appreciated the frequent explanation of key plot points and quotes from the characters in the graphic novels discussed, I found myself constantly asking “what, why, how?”  Put simply, what could have been a well crafted argument suffered for a lack of real demonstration.  Similarly, an earlier chapter on Latino identities in Love and Rockets (Ana Merino, pp. 34-48) also suffered a lack of clarity in argument and overcompensated with frequent plot exposition.  It should be mentioned that the latter was translated from the original, so perhaps something was lost in that process.

In the final chapter of the collection, Alex Link deftly compares Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Taiyo Matsumoto’s Tekkon Kinkreet, arguing for the individual’s ability and right to articulate their local culture’s ‘collective identity without fixing that identity coercively’ within a globalized, mechanized structure (p.240).  While a modern Persian and not-too-distant future Japan seem to have little in common on the surface, this chapter reads as a clarion call for just that—the right and the necessity to express cultural difference.  Link ends: ‘the fact of devotion and commitment to keeping one’s cultural identity alive by activating it in the expression takes precedence over the positive content of that identity’ (p. 253).

In carefully arranging Representing Multiculturalism’s pieces into a structural dialogue with one another, the editors and contributors have managed to meaningfully add to an important and ongoing conversation within the young field of comics studies, if also inadvertently managing to further dislodge any definition of the term multiculturalism from my mind.  Out of all the chapters included in this volume, only one clearly attempted to define what multiculturalism actually meant for his study.  Jacob Birken’s Set Pieces: Cultural Appropriation and the Search for Contemporary Identities in Shonen Manga (pp. 146-159) refreshingly ‘suspend(s) “multiculturalism” as a paradigm for dealing with cultures in plural, and to retreat to a notion of  ‘culture, whose qualifying or quantifying prefix remains a potential’ (p.147).

By avoiding any hard definitions of such a term, the editors seem to have deliberately exposed the limitations inherent to any attempts to generalize or universalize notions of multiculturalism.  In studying a variety of representations of cultural difference in comics while analyzing both oppressive and liberating possibilities inherent to the art form, this collection succeeds in its project to ‘produce multiculturalist comics scholarship’ (p. 1).

Carolene Ayaka and Ian Hague (Eds.), Representing Multiculturalism in Comics and Graphic Novels, New York: Routledge, 2015, ISBN: 978-1-138-02515-8, 269 pp.

This book review is published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2015

This House Is Not For Sale – E.C. Osondu | A Review by Okwudili Nebeolisa

Grandpa and His Mystical House

An old house, a patriarch, and its numerous inhabitants with incredible pasts…

E.C. Osondu stamped his name as one of Nigeria’s finest contemporary writers with his debut book Voice of America (VOA), a short story collection which came out in 2010. It was in VOA that his Caine Prize-winning story Waiting and another shortlisted story Jimmy Carter’s Eyes appeared. The collection brimmed with people trying to live above the poverty line by any means: bank robbers, kidnappers, widows, corrupt policemen, prostitutes, and even an American vagabond living in Nigeria who turns out to be a Nollywood celebrity. So with an exciting first outing, readers would expect Osondu’s latest offer to be another scintillating read.

Osondu’s new novel’s title reminds any Nigerian of the popular statement written boldly on buildings to keep clear of confidence-men around the country: THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE, BEWARE OF 419. Though EC Osundu never mentions it anywhere in the book, it is obvious it is set in Lagos like in most of the stories in VOA. Just as most times one doesn’t know who is narrating, one only knows it is a child (or a group of children) narrating because of the underlying precocity and unreliability. The chapters – if they can be called chapters –have little or no connection between themselves, confirming EC Osundu’s inclination to the short form.

The first story or section of the book begins with a genealogical tale of origin, in a format common to the tradition of storytelling in Africa. When the children of the household ask their ‘Grandpa’ how the Family House came to be, Grandpa tells them a fantastic story that began a ‘long, long time ago’. Their ancestor, a respected juju man, dreamt he saw a crown on his head and felt the dream meant he would be a king soon. In that time there was an oppressive king who had the most beautiful girls presented to him first to have as wives; a king whose hunters presented him the choicest parts of their kill. The king, in an attempt to build something that would be regarded as his heritage, constructed a moat. But he faced opposition from Grandpa’s ancestors, a move that led to the king deciding to behead everyone who opposed him. However, when it got to Grandpa’s turn to lose his head, a millipede crawled out of that same head and the king decided to let him be. The ancestor, in appreciation, made an elixir for the king’s generation. In compensation, the king built him a home in the western tradition.

In the following story, Ndozo flees the Family House after being humiliated for stealing money from the sales box. Rumours surround her disappearance, including a curse Ndozo left, ‘that just as she had been put to shame that the house and its inhabitants would eventually be humiliated…’ Years later, Ndozo returns as a wealthy woman with an incredible story. She is intent on getting her son back but the members of the Family House refuse to give her back her son. She leaves disappointed.

Perhaps, of all the people mentioned in the novel, Gramophone, formerly known as Cash, is the most exciting. He is a man who long ago came to seek refuge in Family House after killing another man. In his past life, he had a provision shop that boomed but soon failed with the coming of Rotate, another shop owner who seemed to know one or two things about proper bookkeeping. A duel ensued between Rotate and Cash to see who would attract more customers to his own shop. They employed every known method, even slandering each other’s names. Now, living in the Family House, Gramophone is married to a girl who is given to him by Grandpa, a girl whose father owed Grandpa some money and was given in exchange of the debt.

There is Abule with his unfaithful wife Fanti who hawks food by day and runs a ‘beer house’ by night. One morning he decides to kill all his wife’s lovers, one of them a bricklayer, the other a motor park tout. He shoots the bricklayer in the shoulder and kills the motor park tout. He burns his wife’s shed thereafter. His wife flees.

Gabriel ‘the unluckiest person on earth’ now lives under the roof of the Family House after venturing into a series of unfavourable businesses, from planting tomatoes to felling trees. His lumbering business ended when the first tree, which his sawyer was felling, fell on the sawyer and buried him. He thinks that under the family, perhaps his misfortune will change  to luck but after a police raid and his arrest, he decides to leave the Family House since even under its roof, his unluckiness cannot be avoided.

There are a host of other people: Soja, ‘a corruption of the word soldier’ who leaves home for a training camp and returns with stories of his time away, one time working for the Environmental Task Force maltreating people and illegally confiscating people’s property; Fuebi, Soja’s daughter, whose mother rejoices to God when a rich man, Fide, makes passes at her and gives her large sums of money and, in due course, demands for sex. Things turn out to be good for Fuebi when she gets pregnant  by Fide and moves into his house.

The house later comes to an end: ‘The Ministry of Environment sent a notice that the Family House is sitting on a place that should have a major drain way’. One morning it is bulldozed, the event is observed by even soldiers and policemen because everyone knows it is not an ordinary house. Family House is a house where ‘all the things they said happened in that house … will make our ears tingle’.

Every character has a story of his own, typical Nigerian city’s stories, stories whose only connections are the Family House and Grandpa the patriarch. The characters come in a fizz in one chapter and then are never mentioned anywhere else.The stories of the characters are often didactic and ironic.Full of people fleeing, vanishing, and returning to the Family House. E.C. Osondu employs flashback technique to blend his characters’ complicated lives in such a way that their lives merged with the fortunes of the Family House, leaving them all memorable but with unsatisfying personal encounters.

Without intending to demean his book, I can say it works better as a collection of related short stories or as some sort of modernist novel told like an African fairy tale, of stories of people who lived in one big house at some point in time. There is no traceable plot. The book is something like an amalgam of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit to the Goon Squad and Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. Each person who arrived at the Family House seemed to have done so to seek salvation, a salvation they later realise not to be achievable.

Thematically, This House Is Not For Sale deals with most topical issues in contemporary Nigeria – prostitution, robbery, security (or lack of it), lack of infrastructure, corruption, kidnapping, political chicanery and other grim topics that populate the pages of daily newspapers in the country.

This House is not for Sale works better as a folktale rather than as a metaphor of contemporary Nigerian social and political history.There’s so much allusion to the Family House that at a point one feels it is another character, or rather the central character we seem to be missing, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. In reading the book, we experience a house full of mysterious people with mysterious stories. It becomes a representation of the complicated and fast life lived in the city, in this case, Lagos. Of all the people who have stayed in the Family House, Grandpa is obviously the most enlightened, the one who is portrayed as a flawless one. He is portrayed as a metaphysical being. He seems to have solutions to every problem, doling out advice to critical situations. Everyone else listens to him. But, who knows, whether this is because Grandpa is the Family House’s owner, whose attributes are reflected like a spectral mirror in the lives of the occupants of the Family House?

This House Is Not For Sale / E.C. Osondu, Haper Collins, USA. 2015, ISBN: 9780061990885, pages: 192

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Fall 2015

Gambit. Newer African Writing – Emmanuel Iduma & Shaun Randol (Eds.) | A Review by Gilbert Braspenning

A Gambit is a first move in a game, mostly chess. And, this anthology of lovely stories is published as a first move, a trigger for writers and editors to publish more of its kind. A trigger also to show the literary world how beautiful Africa’s literature at its best could look like. In the introduction to their anthology, the editors Emmanuel Iduma and Shaun Randol put it like this:

Gambit aims to open up the conversation about what is (or is not) African writing, who or what African writers are and represent, and how this conversation can broaden the reader’s understanding of places and people so foreign to their own experiences. Further Gambit seeks to challenge the publishing  industry’s assumptions of quality African and world literature and to encourage similar publishing efforts elsewhere. (p. xii)


Gambit. Newer African Writing consists of nine short stories from young emerging African writers. This means ‘emerging’ from a Western literary point of view, because some of them do already have a certain reputation in their home country. And it’s exactly one of the aims of the editors of this anthology to bring these voices to the limelight.

Each short story is preceded by an interview with the writer. Usually this works out quite well: the interview helps in interpreting the story and vice versa. But, not so in this anthology. The short story that follows is never a topic of discussion in the preceding interview. As a reader, you are curious how the story fits within the author’s oeuvre, or in the literary canon of the author’s home country or region, or whatsoever. However, the interviews don’t give you any clues on this.

Yet, all the interviews are of great depth in understanding these writers and are very much worth a read. They touch upon the writers’ literary perspectives, their literary examples and preferences; upon the influence of the writer’s milieu on his or her work, upon the writer’s choice for fiction or poetry, upon the choice between writing novels or short stories, upon the use of the English language, upon the importance of (Western) recognition for an emerging African writer, etc. etc.

Focus on Nigeria

Every interview is followed by a short story. The nine wonderful stories in this book are written by: Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya), Ayobami Adebayo (Nigeria), Dami Najayi (Nigeria), Richard Ali (Nigeria), Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria), Dango Mkandawire (Malawi), Donald Mlosi (Botswana), Navuyo Rosa Tshuma (Zimbambwe) and Susan Ushie (Nigeria). The book ends with brief notes about each of these authors. So, most writers, and also the interviewer Emmanuel Iduma , originate from Nigeria. Hence, as a reader, you learn a lot about the position of literature in that country, which was until late in the 1980s the purveyor of literature in Africa. You also learn, for instance, that after the generation Soyinka, Achebe and Clark, very little important poetry has been published from Nigeria. In contrast, the short story seems to flourish, in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. The Nigerian author Richard Ali makes the following, important remark on the state of African literature:

I foresee the rise of ideologies of Nigerian and Africa writing from this generation; we will leave ideas and factions and schisms – the whole works. And we will leave a mark. We are already making an impact, because for us the purpose of tradition is to aid us to be at the start of a new tradition. There are no foreign influences to overwhelm, for we have seen the harm of unoriginality and, I am hopeful, we largely value our creative authenticity. (p. 103)

African and Western Recognition

Hence, Richard Ali touches here upon the central thought of this book: a new generation of African writers has come to the fore, who write from Africa, on Africa, from a local point of view, and for whom it’s not a primary concern to be acknowledged by the Western literary world.
In the interviews, most writers say they write in first instance from their belly, out of an urgency because the stories have been roaming in their head already for a long time. Or, they say that they just want to write beautiful stories. They acknowledge that recognition is important for a writer, but that in the process of writing, you don’t have to bother yourself with it. And, for them, the recognition afterwards might as well come from a local setting.

It’s exactly the intention of the editors of this book to give a voice to these emerging African writers and to give them the broader recognition they deserve, from a non-Western perspective, regardless of recognition from the Western literary quarters. And, they succeed keenly in this: the stories are clearly written, easily accessible, and have a firm plot structure and characterization.

Universal themes

Another characteristic of great literature is that universal themes like solitude, love, desire, loss, estrangement, racism, etc. are worked out in a subtle way. This is definitely the case regarding the stories in this book. For instance, what are we to make of the captivating story Talk to me by Dami Ajayi (Nigeria), in which a young couple is totally bored. They have completely lost interest in each other. Talk to me is an alarm cry from the man to his woman, who most of the time only talks to her Blackberry screen.
Also the young couple in Back to love by Donald Molosi (Botswana) is totally bored. She’s American, he’s originally from Botswana. They dine in a restaurant where the Vermeer painting in the entrance hall is as fake as the conversation among Americans in general, and between the two ‘lovers’ in particular. Thus, the setting of the restaurant is emblematic for American, and by extension, Western society: impressive on the outside, but artificial from within. At least, seen from the perspective of non-Westerners like Thera, the Motswana man. The conversations are superficial and lack empathy. The treatment of non-Western people is, in the best case friendly, in the worst case racist, but most of the time something in between.

Scratches on the soul

Particularly these two stories, but also others in this anthology, impose a great deal of uneasiness on the reader; they leave scratches on the soul, because they are so recognizable. Out of the stories looms an atmosphere of estrangement, disorientation, either within an (other) culture, or within a relationship. They fully do revive the ‘condition humaine’. But, as the Nigerian author Abubakar Adam Ibrahim explains, perhaps this must be the objective of every writer:

Essentially, I think the purpose of the writer is to cast light on the dark side of things – of feelings and thoughts and actions that define the way we live and the way we perceive things. I think the writer is the chronicler of the human experience against the backdrop of change, which in itself is constant. (p. 126)

Gambit. Newer African Writing confirms and demonstrates that Africa is full of young, creative writers, who are a real match for the established storytellers of the literary world, if ever we doubted this! And, one of the main intentions of the book was to give a podium to young, emerging African writers. By publishing these short stories for a wider audience, The Mantle Publishing, also an interesting online platform for world literature, has kicked off with a solid gambit. Mission accomplished, I would say!

Gambit. Newer African Writing / Emmanuel Iduma & Shaun Randol (Eds.). New York, The Mantle, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-938-02288-3, 280 pp.

This book review was published in: Africa Book Link, Summer 2015